Written by Alice LaPlante — For all of the artfully arranged tension and ever escalating gore in many crime novels it’s rare to put one down feeling genuinely disturbed. Rarer still to be thinking about it weeks later. But Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is not your average crime novel. Longlisted for this years prestigious CWA Creasey Dagger, its author is a creative writing teacher at Stanford and an exprienced journalist, but Turn of Mind is her debut novel. It’s a book which turns the genre’s conventions inside out, combining an unwillingly unreliable narrator with an elegantly fractured narrative to produce something very special.
When Jennifer White’s oldest and closest friend Amanda is murdered she finds herself under suspicion. Amanda’s fingers have been surgically removed after death, a grisly flourish which convinces the police that only Jennifer – a highly respected orthopaedic surgeon specialising in hands – could be responsible. Jennifer is in the grip of Alzheimers though and appears to have no memory of the event, despite being the last person to see Amanda alive. Witnesses say the two women were heard arguing, something Jennifer denies reflexively. After all, they were like sisters, almost soul mates, why would they possibly have fought?
But nothing in Jennifer’s life is quite what it seems and as the book progresses and her mental state deteriorates we begin to glimpse darker truths, which the old, firmly in control Jennifer strove to hide from the world. The illustrious career has ended prematurely after the first stages of the disease took hold in the OR, but how long before that was she making mistakes? Her perfect marriage to the handsome, mercurial James… was it really so perfect? Jennifer’s children Fiona and Mark keep returning to the family home, ostensibly protecting her from the police, but as we see them through Jennifer’s eyes, sometimes as children, sometimes as strangers, we come to realise that even they may not have her best interests at heart.
The clearest point of reference in Jennifer’s life is a notebook kept by her long-suffering and ever-patient nurse Magdalena, where visitors record things for her to read, important things they need her to remember. Yet this strand of narration is just as unreliable as Jennifer’s memory, coloured by agendas which remain obscure. Somewhere in the jumble of half-formed impressions and moments of piercing clarity lies the truth about Amanda’s death.
When I first heard about Turn of Mind I could only wonder at the ambition of Alice LaPlante. Centring a crime novel on a woman suffering from Alzheimers seemed like an impossible task – breathtakingly original and technically challenging – something which would take immense chutzpah to pull off. And LaPlante has done it was aplomb, creating a claustrophobic, intensely drawn world, marked by shifting, splintered perceptions which eloquently mimic the experience of the disease, while letting slip just enough solid information to ensure the crime element of the story bubbles along nicely. The success of the book is largely down Jennifer’s voice, engaging but combative, alternately lucid and opaque, she draws us in but at no point do we know for sure just how much she remembers, and watching this impressive mind gradually atrophy is a heartbreaking experience.
Turn of Mind is a tour de force of psychological crime fiction. LaPlante’s clear-eyed and unsentimental approach to Alzheimer’s is reflected in crisp, flawless prose which makes the horror of the disease even more harrowing – if you know someone who has suffered it prepare to fill up. Work of this originality and flair doesn’t come along very often and fans of more cerebral crime novels will love it.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars