Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

This was a sad and fascinating book. I read it in a day – not unheard of, but fairly rare considering that it was a regular work day. Started on my lunch break and finished before bedtime. It was absorbing and unique. A murder-mystery, yes, but also sort of a psychological thriller. The unique framing element of the book is this:

Dr. Jennifer White is sixty-four, and has dementia. When the book opens, she’s in the early-to-mid stages of the disease, living at home with a full-time, live-in caretaker. Her best friend of several decades, who is also her three-doors-down neighbor and godmother to her daughter, has been murdered, several fingers cleanly amputated. Dr. White (whose specialty was hand surgery, ahem) is a suspect, and doesn’t know herself whether she did it or not. Her story is told in first-person; we read snippets from the notebook she keeps, hear conversations, and listen to her private thoughts as she struggles with the questions. The questions are only rarely about Amanda’s murder. In reading about this book I thought the murder case was the main focus, but it’s not. Dr. White is only occasionally aware of the question of her friend’s death, because she’s only occasionally aware that her friend is dead. Her disease and its progression, her confusion, the attempts by her adult children to shape her future, and her eventual fate are the book’s main concern – because we see through Dr. White’s eyes.

The mystery of who killed Amanda is different from the usual mystery we encounter, because we don’t see a murderer trying to cover his or her tracks. Dr. White’s children, and the lawyer they hire, work to protect her from an investigation that may damage her fragile mental health. At one point it is decided that she did kill her friend, but the legal system of course won’t take its normal course even in that event. (I’m not giving it away; there are still twists and turns.) And again, the mystery is not the primary focus of the book. As Dr. White’s story unfolds – backwards, in snippets, jumping around chronologically, and never reliably – talk about an unreliable narrator – we learn more about her husband, Amanda, Amanda’s husband, and Dr. White’s two children, as well as the hired caretaker and even the primary police investigator. Of course, no one’s story is simple or unblemished.

A fascinating and engrossing mystery is only part of the attraction of this book. It’s an exploration into the head of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, engaging and overwhelming and sad and riveting. Make no mistake: this is a terribly sad story. Being young myself, and having parents in excellent health and with plenty of youth and life left, I hadn’t thought much about nursing homes, but this book’s portrayal terrified me. If you can steel yourself for the tragedy, though, this is a beautiful story, communicated in a unique format, gripping and sensitive. I recommend it highly.

One Response

  1. […] Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante. Fiction. […]

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