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My appetite for crime fiction has waned in recent years as I can only deal with so much dark and gory. But I enjoy coming across a thriller that’s twisty and offbeat and US author Alice LaPLante’s debut novel, Turn Of Mind (Text) is both of those things. The plot is one of those smart ideas that could so easily have been turned into a disaster of a book but she’s pulled it off with agile and technically brilliant writing.
The story begins with retired hand surgeon Jennifer White under suspicion for the murder of her close friend and neighbour Amanda whose corpse has been found with four fingers surgically removed. The trouble is Jennifer has dementia and can barely hold onto the news Amanda is gone, never mind know whether she killed her or recall why she might have wanted to. We learn the pair had an argument, that there were frictions and jealousies throughout their relationship. Gradually we discover that neither have been particularly easy or likeable women. But still there seems no motive for murder
The thing that is both heartbreaking and genius about this novel is that LaPlante tells the story from Jennifer’s point of view. And so like her, we have to piece together what has happened from splinters of memories, conversations with her children and caregiver, and the newspaper clippings and jottings in the notebook she keeps to prompt her mind. Jennifer is the ultimate unreliable narrator and often we find ourselves almost as disoriented as she is. While this sounds like a confusing way to unfold a story, it makes for a compelling read. As memories bubble to the surface, family secrets are revealed and we find nothing is how or what it seemed.
The murder itself is incidental in many ways. What this book is about is the reader being given a front row seat to the deterioration of a once brilliant mind. It’s clever, clever stuff. Dementia might not be the most appealing subject but it’s never anything less than fascinating to be taken inside Jennifer’s mind and be shown its frailties and its small triumphs.
LaPlante’s own mother is in the final stages of Alzheimers and it’s clear she’s drawn deeply on the heartbreak of this personal experience, yet the writing is unsentimental and there are even occasional flashes of humour. At one point Jennifer lists the top 10 signs you have Alzheimers: your husband starts introducing himself as your caregiver; you keep discovering new rooms in your house…
Turn Of Mind was the deserving winner of this year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize for writing on the theme of health and medicine. It’s a difficult novel to categorise, being so much more than a literary thriller or a whodunit. From beginning to end this exploration of mental illness was one of the more absorbing novels I’ve read this year, possibly the most surprising and certainly the most thought provoking. It might not be the obvious choice for a summer read but once you’ve picked it up I’ll bet you won’t be able to put it down.