Turn of Mind

Dr. Jennifer White was once a prominent orthopedic surgeon. Now she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and her close friend and neighbor for more than three decades has been found murdered, the four fingers on her right hand removed with surgical precision.

I put Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind on my hold list at the library after reading a review of it on NPR. I was drawn in by the prospect of mystery and an unreliable narrator, but this book offers quite a bit more than that.

Jennifer is only vaguely aware that something is amiss. She has to be told over and over again about the death–murder–of her longtime friend, Amanda, even though the police consider her the prime suspect. The story is told in the first person, through Jennifer, so we are privy to everything that happens through her eyes, and through her notebook, where she keeps notes and where other people write to her, so she can read through it on her better days. Jennifer has a caregiver, Magdalena, and her two grown children, Fiona and Mark. Her husband, James, has been dead for several years, but often she believes he is still alive, or mistakes her son for him.

We learn through the questions the police ask Jennifer that Amanda and Jennifer had a terrible fight not long before Amanda was murdered. Several neighbors witnessed the argument, which, along with the severed fingers, make Jennifer the prime suspect. Through a series of memories, notebook entries, and police inquiries, we get the story of what happened between Jennifer and Amanda–or at least what Jennifer believes happened, for this version of their past is only her version, and it is rather flawed. Her memory deteriorates rapidly throughout the book, and even though the the murder is solved by the end of the book, the larger story, which is really about the relationship between the two women, remains a mystery of sorts, because we only know whatever Jennifer, in her fragmented state of mind, reveals to us.

For me, the mystery was the least interesting part of the story. What was most interesting–and most frightening–was experiencing Jennifer’s decline from her own point of view. We really have no way of knowing what people with Alzheimer’s experience. We may know scientifically what cognitive functions are most likely to go first or the general line of progression, but the fact that a disease of the mind can be so tied to memory and individual experiences is what makes it ultimately unknowable. Whatever fragments of memory return for an individual are hers and hers alone, and no one can say even if they are actual memories or new stories told with former characters and events arranged in new ways. And while experiencing this through Jennifer makes this book interesting, it also makes it very difficult to read, or at least it did for me. I had to put it down even when the story compelled me to keep reading, because I was so disturbed by Jennifer’s disease. It was difficult for me not to think of people suffering through this illness, and how their loved ones suffer right along with them, losing their family members to what? To the past? To some inner chamber of the mind? To nothingness?

This is LaPlante’s first novel, and to say it’s skillfully done would be an understatement. I cannot imagine having to live inside Jennifer’s head long enough to write this book, so I think it’s quite an achievement. I look forward to her next book.

Some passages:

A large sign is taped to the kitchen wall. The words, written in thick black marker in a tremulous hand, slop off the poster board. My name is Dr. Jennifer White. I am sixty-four years old. I have dementia. My son, Mark, is twenty-nine. My daughter, Fiona, twenty-four. A caregiver, Magdalena, lives with me.

It is all clear. So who are all these other people in my house? People, strangers, everywhere. A blond woman I don’t recognize in my kitchen drinking tea. A glimpse of movement from the den. Then I turn the corner into the living room and find yet another face. I ask, So who are you? Who are all the other? Do you know her? I point to the kitchen, and they laugh.

I am her. I was there, now I’m here. I am the only one in the house other than you. They ask if I want tea. They ask if I want to go for a walk. Am I a baby? I say. I am tired f the questions. You know me, don’t you? Don’t you remember? Magdalena. Your friend.

I pick up the first photo album, labeled 1998-2000. The woman who helps me insists. She doesn’t understand how utterly stupefying it is to be guided through the sea of unfamiliar faces and locales. All labeled in large black capital letters as though for an idiot child. For me.

To be asked, over and over, And who is this? Do you remember her? Do you recognize this place? It’s like being forced to see someone’s holiday snapshots of places you never wanted to go.

We’re looking at apples. Piles and piles of apples, all different varieties, colors, sizes. Next to them, mounds of green pears, purple pears. Then oranges. Who stacks them so neatly? Who keeps them in order?

I take one of the apples, a red one, and bite it. A bitter aftertaste. I spit it out and pick up another. Try that one. A little girl is watching me. Mom, that lady is wasting food. Shhh, the mother says, but the girl persists. And why is she taking off her dress?

Jennifer! I turn around. A large blond woman is running at me. Startled, I bump against the apples, and they start tumbling down off the stand, rolling by the dozens onto my feet, onto the floor, scattering in all directions.

Put your clothes back on! But why should I? Jennifer, no, not anymore. Please leave on your underpants. Oh, God, they’ll call the police again. A large man hurries over. Ma’am? he asks. Th blond woman cuts him off. She has dementia. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Here. Here’s a letter from her doctor.

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