Book Review: Turn of the Mind
by Alice LaPlante
New York: Grove Press, 2012. $15.00
Alice LaPlante’s debut novel, Turn of Mind, is the first work of fiction to win the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for medical writing. This may seem a strange niche for a mystery novel, but LaPlante’s book does not slot easily into any genre.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Dr. Jennifer White, a brilliant surgeon sinking into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease and, as such, the archetype of the unreliable narrator. The reader can trust very little of what Jennifer says in terms of when and where she is, whom she is with, or what she has done. Her perception of reality—and therefore also her narrative—is distorted by the illness. LaPlante leaves it to the reader to navigate Jennifer’s skewed perceptions, just as Jennifer herself tries to do, though she increasingly fails.
The nightmare of Alzheimer’s is depicted with merciless clarity and sometimes with humor. Jennifer White was, and in some ways still is, a highly intelligent woman. She knows when she is being patronized—one of her top ten signs of having Alzheimer’s is, in her words, when “Girl Scouts come over and force you to decorate flower pots with them.” She is also aware of her gradual loss of status, going from “Dr. White” among colleagues at the hospital to “Jen” at the assisted living home. But while Turn of Mind offers a compelling depiction of the slow deterioration of an Alzheimer’s-affected mind, readers must decide for themselves whether it also succeeds as a crime novel.
The crime itself is the murder of Jennifer White’s best and longest-term friend, Amanda, who is found with a fatal head wound and four fingers of her hand surgically removed. The friendship between Jennifer and Amanda was known to be troubled, and as an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in hands, Jennifer has the skill to commit the crime. The police suspect her and posit that her claims of forgetfulness are a blind. The reader knows that Jennifer has no recollection of Amanda’s death—each time she hears of it, it comes as a dreadful shock with fresh bereavement—but this doesn’t mean Jennifer is innocent. At several key points in Jennifer’s life, Amanda breached the trust that should surely exist between close friends. And there is something Jennifer is aware of, even with her damaged mind: a place she doesn’t want to visit. Is this the story of Amanda’s murder?
Turn of Mind is not without its flaws. For example, why does Jennifer remain friends with a woman who tried to steal her daughter and destroy her marriage? The nature of the narrative prohibits this from being convincingly explained. Further, the narrative restrictions created by Jennifer’s illness dictate that the crime is revealed more through exposition than gradual discovery. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing, intelligent mystery. LaPlante joins the ranks of recent authors writing novels that include crimes, rather than traditional mysteries that hinge on them. If you’re looking for serial killer gore, this is not the book for you. The horror does not come from graphic details of the murder, but rather from the slow deterioration of an intelligent, perceptive woman. Turn of Mind is an impressive debut.