Murder mysteries reveal hidden worlds, moving us from confusion — What’s that corpse doing there? — to clarity about whodunit, why and what malfunctioned in the killer’s mind. So it makes sense that crime stories involving memory loss are common, from Mickey Spillane’s The Long Wait to Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain to Christopher Nolan’s film Memento. A provocative variation on that theme is Alice LaPlante’s nervy and stylish debut novel, Turn of Mind. Here, the proximate cause for amnesia isn’t a bus accident (Spillane) or a falling brick (Woolrich) but Alzheimer’s-related dementia, and the person who has it is both the narrator of the book and the prime suspect in a grisly murder.
“Something has happened” are the first words we hear from Dr. Jennifer White, that 64-year-old narrator. Almost immediately, LaPlante makes us see Jennifer’s confusion as if through clouded glass: She writes in clipped, taut paragraphs that seem to hide as much as they reveal. But they allow us to glean the necessary details. Jennifer was a respected hand surgeon until her disease recently worsened; she has a caretaker who polices her wanderings and rages; and she has two grown children, Mark and Fiona, who take an unseemly interest in the amount of money she has managed to save in the course of a long lifetime of professional accomplishments. Jennifer has one other thing, too: the attention of the police, who are questioning her about the murder of her friend and neighbor, Amanda O’Toole, whose corpse was found with four fingers removed from its right hand — cleanly, with surgical precision.
This deliberate vagueness on LaPlante’s part confers several advantages. As in other memory-loss tales, the tactic heightens the sense of mystery. But it also draws us uncomfortably close to the detachment and helplessness that Alzheimer’s generates. When Jennifer is shocked to learn she has a son, her enthusiasm is heartbreaking: “I have a son! I am struck dumb. I have a son! I am filled with ecstasy. Joy!” Matters get even more tragic when Mark, wrestling a drug addiction, bullies her into signing paperwork that frees him to drain her bank account.
Fiona isn’t nearly so nefarious — at least not openly so — but she brings plenty of complications of her own. A family secret ultimately makes her central to the plot. But well before its disclosure, it is clear that Fiona, highly educated herself, triggers her mother’s competitive streak. Told by Fiona to “get a grip,” Jennifer retorts: “I have a grip. I have a tremendous grip. And I will not be betrayed…. From this point on, I have no daughter, I say.”
Those dramatic outbursts say as much about Jennifer’s disease as they do about her character. She lives in a world where humdrum facts register as seismic shocks. But LaPlante explores more nuanced psychological questions as well. If Jennifer truly killed Amanda, what does it mean to be in a murderous rage? Is it disconnected from our personal relationships and closer to our natural state of being? How much of our personality does Alzheimer’s disclose, and how much does it cloak?
In spite of her illness, Jennifer remains a full and, in her way, consistent person. Even as she is ravaged by the disease, her essence remains (it is that of a smart, observant, headstrong and funny person). When she mocks her nursing home as a “five-star hotel with guardrails” and promises to “break every rule, transgress every line” to escape, for example, it’s hard not to root for Jennifer. Indeed, she’s as likable a murder suspect as you’re likely to encounter in a thriller (though LaPlante’s style can be richly poetic and decidedly non-thriller-like).
So vividly does LaPlante highlight the details of Jennifer’s illness that the murder in which she may be involved gets somewhat eclipsed. In part that’s because Jennifer’s friendship with Amanda — and, later on, the treacherous roots of her considerable animus against her — is detailed only obliquely. When it comes to ascribing motive, vagueness is no asset.
So while the mystery at the heart of Turn of Mind is satisfactorily solved, what lingers in the reader’s mind is not so much the resolution of the plot as the resilience of Jennifer’s character. Midway through the novel, for example, Jennifer’s caretaker prepares to divulge some past sins. “I need an ear,” the caretaker confesses. “I want to say something, and then I want it to vanish.” As Jennifer listens to the woman’s indiscretions with genial curiosity, we recognize not just the irony of the moment — I’m telling you this because I know you’ll forget it right away — but its poignancy: Alzheimer’s patients reshape those around them in ways that transcend anguish and frustration. As the best parts of Turn of Mind reveal, the disease opens us to the very things that make us human.
Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at http://www.markathitakis.com.