A confusing book you can't put down

An offbeat thriller with dementia as a theme absorbs Nicky Pellegrino.

Book cover of Turn of Mind. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Turn of Mind. Photo / Supplied

My appetite for crime fiction has waned in recent years as I can deal with only so much that is dark and gory. But I enjoy a thriller that's twisty and offbeat and US author Alice LaPlante's début novel, Turn Of Mind (Text, $40), is both of those things.

The plot is one of those smart ideas that could so easily have been 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 on to 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 and that there were frictions and jealousies throughout their relationship. Gradually we discover neither has been particularly easy or likeable women. But still there seems no motive for murder.

The thing that is heartbreaking and genius about this novel is that LaPlante tells the story from Jennifer's point of view. And so, like her, we 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. Although 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 - nothing is how or what it seems.

The murder itself is incidental in many ways. What this book is about is the reader having a front row seat to the deterioration of a once-brilliant mind. It's clever, clever stuff. Dementia may not be the most appealing subject but it's 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 Alzheimer's and the author has drawn deeply on this experience, yet the writing is unsentimental and there are even flashes of humour. At one point, Jennifer lists the top 10 signs you have Alzheimer's: 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 so much more than a literary thriller or a whodunit.

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 may 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.

- Herald on Sunday

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