Turn of Mind ~ Alice LaPlante

When sixty-four year old Dr. Jennifer White, a practicing orthopedic surgeon, began to show signs of dementia she “retired”.  Then there is the matter of the murder of her best friend (three doors down). Thus we are presented with the very odd prospect of a literary thriller with a narrator who slides in and out of lucidity. Talk about your unreliable narrator…

The thriller aspect is compelling and keeps you guessing to the very end. LaPlante does a deep dive into what it must be like to suffer from this horrible end of life affliction. Yet since Jennifer is so crusty and self-aware (except when she’s not) there is no self-pity.  This lack of self-pity allows the reader to avoid the distraction of pity as well. The pity is reserved for the family members: daughter Fiona and son Mark. What we get are some perceptive insights into how the mind works – whether the sound mind or the troubled, diseased one.

At an Alzheimer’s support group, the participants are asked what they hate.

Hate is a powerful emotion, our young leader says. Ask a dementia patient who she loves, and she draws a blank. Ask her who she hates, and the memories come flooding in.

Before she is forced into a round the clock care facility, she lives in her own home with a caregiver. Magdalena is an unusual character in that we never get a clear picture of her. She seems to have no life outside of her care of Jennifer. Seems to have no history, though there are hints of having run away from something.

So here we live, such an odd couple. The woman without a past. And the woman desperately trying to hold on to hers. Magdalena would like a clean slate, while I am mourning the involuntary wiping of mine. Each with needs the other can’t fulfill.

There is a diary kept by Jennifer, but mostly for her. She writes in it some. Mostly other people do. Magdalena writes about her day. Visitors (Fiona and Mark, and her friend Amanda as well). LaPlante notes the pain of loss in those close to Alzheimer’s sufferers, reminding us that to be unaware is to not suffer. But to witness the suffering of a loved one is to suffer an undulled pain. Amanda writes in the journal

I am very selfish: I am more concerned about myself than you in this regard. You’ll get past this stage of awareness, and the disease will be its own pain-management regime. But me. These little outings remind me of how much anesthesia I’m, going to need. Like the topical sedative that goes in before the big needle, everything I’ve done to prepare myself is going to be too weak to withstand the pain of separation that’s looming.

The end of my marriage is nothing compared to the end of our friendship – is that’s what you want to call it. It’s enough to want to burn the bridge and leave you on the other side. Too many good-byes lie ahead. How many times have you had to endure the death of James? How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ. Yes, better to burn the bridge and prevent it from being crossed and recrossed until my heart gives out from sheer exhaustion.

James is Jennifer’s deceased husband who she swears is working late, though he’s been dead for sometime. At other junctures she is talking to her son Mark and believes she’s talking to James. Other times she knows he has left her alone, and this is almost worse than her delusion.

LaPlante details the lost grasp of the little things: the lack of a word, the function of an ordinary object, as in the wonder of a light switch. A metaphor for returning to herself, to illumination, as opposed to the darkness of being lost.

I flip down the switch, plunge everything into shadow. Up, illumination, down, despair. Up down. The satisfying, familiar click. I know what this is. I know what it does. My body begins to feel comfortable again, my breathing evens out. I continue what I’m doing until the blond woman comes and leads me away.

The investigation into the death of Amanda is a frustrating one for the police. When Jennifer insists that she did not kill Amanda, she is not lying. If she did it, she can’t remember. Her whereabouts on the night in question. Who can tell? Certainly not Jennifer, a person of interest. There is no physical evidence to tie Jennifer with the murder. Although there is the matter of the severing of Amanda’s fingers on one hand with “surgical” precision. And hands were Dr. White’s specialty. Eventually all is revealed, and the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion, with an unusual twist. Recommended both to those who like a good mystery, and to those who may have had a loved one who suffered from the affliction. For the latter, the sensitivity of LaPlante’s approach and her clear understanding of what the disease brings will be especially appreciated. A nice job for a first novel.

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