An Elegant Portrait of Dementia: Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind
It's a tricky business, chronicling your own descent into the gathering darkness of dementia, but not if you're Dr. Jennifer White, a vibrant, exasperating, and brilliant sixty-four-year-old retired hand surgeon in Alice LaPlante's superb debut novel, Turn of Mind.
"Something has happened," Jennifer begins. "You can always tell." In this case, the something is the murder of Amanda O'Toole, "my best friend, my ally, my most worthy adversary … now gone, leaving me utterly bereft." The fact that four of Amanda's fingers have been severed -- with surgical precision -- makes Jennifer a prime suspect, a possibility alternately supported and obscured by the sometimes razor-sharp quality of her memories, her fixation on fingers "that connect us to the things of this world," and the weighty web of secrets holding her in thrall.
As her family tries to protect her, Jennifer struggles with the "Memento"-like fragmentation of time and memory endemic to her disease. She probes old wounds and sorrows. She dissects family conflicts, past and present. She remembers Amanda's devotion, jealousy, and cunning. "Something is terribly wrong," she repeats, increasingly aware that she, the "unanesthetized patient," is not the only one with secrets. As her kaleidoscopic world splinters and reforms, her mind shuttles between the brutally clear and the poignantly disheveled, ever mindful that, as she tells her troubled adult son, "Some things shouldn't be scrutinized too closely. Some mysteries are only rendered, not solved."
In an effort to bring order to the shifting fissures of her world, her caregiver, Magdalena, supplies notebooks in which Jennifer records what she does, thinks, and feels. The short monologue-entries in this "Bible of consciousness," a brilliant conceit disguised as an exercise in filling in the blanks, allow Jennifer to read and reread herself, and to deconstruct her strategies for control and denial. It also invites other characters, including Jennifer's two complicated children, Magdalena, doctors, a police detective, and Amanda herself to leave their own messages. Along with newspaper clippings, photos, and warnings, these multiple points of view and their overlapping double and triple exposures give us a Jennifer who is both dogged and resilient, conspiratorial and courageous, and allows us ringside seats at her fight to reconcile the artifacts of her personal history with her present life, and to escape the Kafkaesque constructions that both imprison and protect her.
A witty and heartbreaking (fictional) memoir, a suspenseful thriller, and a medical case history, Turn of Mind is impossible to put down. Peel the proverbial onion all you like, Jennifer remains as unforgettable and miraculous as the "ghost plant" her husband cups in his hands in the dark forest behind his childhood home, "[a] plant that doesn't need light, [that] actually grows in the dark." An award-winning journalist and teacher, LaPlante has written extensively about dementia but her elegant and haunting portrayal of its canniness and devastation shows us the heart and soul of a disease that illuminates, ironically, the very things that make us human.