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Turn of Mind

by Alice LaPlante

Atlantic Monthly Press | 2011 | 305 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

alice laplant

Novelists sitting down to work inevitably face two important decisions. The first concerns the content of the novel and the second concerns the form that that content will take, or the framework on which the story is hung. Human imagination is virtually boundless and the world is full of strange and fantastic stories, so the generation of cohesive and compelling content is itself no small feat—but it is the way in which an author approaches the second task of determining structure that distinguishes the storyteller from the artist.

The artist realizes that half or more of the story is its framework, in the same way that the poured concrete of a house’s foundation sets firm its shape, size, atmosphere, and proportions. The perspective that an author takes, how narration will proceed, what will be revealed and what concealed are all issues of equal importance with a book’s who, what, when, and where.

Form brings drama and depth to content, and content gives form humanity, beauty, and a reason to exist at all. These elements are co-dependent: novels that rely too heavily on form bog down in academicism and pedantry, and novels that are completely driven by content veer toward the journalistic. An artist allows the two to inform each other, and it is this unity that produces the truth and understanding that characterize our best literature.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is a brilliant example of this fusion of form and content. The story is gripping, and in the hands of a less sensitive author could easily have become a standard thriller. Its main character and narrator, Dr. Jennifer White, is a 65-year-old former hand surgeon who is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Some eight months after her diagnosis, already suffering from significant loss of memory and unexpected bouts of aggression, Dr. White’s neighbor and friend Amanda is found dead in her house with four fingers neatly cut off.

Luckily, LaPlante is not content to merely focus on the process of the murder investigation; rather, she allows this story to shape and unfold jointly with the account of Dr. White’s illness.

The most unique aspect of this unusual novel is its strong and complete narrative voice. It would have been simple for LaPlante to use a third-person narrative or assign that role to one of White’s children or her caretaker. But by placing White in this position, the reader gains a whole new level of investment in the story, as well as great insight into its characters and themes. The portrayal of White is nothing short of masterful.

Early in the novel, the doctor explains that she keeps a notebook in order to maintain control of a life that is increasingly slipping away from her—an explanation that is entirely in keeping with a character who is often controlled and clinical to the point of coldness.

The narrative slips smoothly between the present and the past, aligning with White’s mental degeneration. The opening line of the book—“Something has happened”—perfectly sets the course of the novel, which demands that the reader also undergo the painful process of facing increasingly incomprehensible situations. Certain details are repeated again and again as the gaps in the doctor’s mind grow wider, but the lapses permit long-buried memories to resurface, fleshing out the complicated relationships between the characters and illuminating their present situations.

The other characters are consistent and finely drawn as well, with careful attention paid to the rhythm and tone of their interactions with the narrator. White’s daughter, Fiona, a somewhat unstable girl juggling great responsibilities, leaves her mother several long, self-involved stories in the notebook. (who?) requests are shorter, more aggressive, less pleading.

What ultimately emerges from Turn of Mind is a profound account of dying and, particularly, the process of human corruption. Hands are critically important to this story and to the character of Dr. White. They appear not only in her surgery and as missing fingers on Amanda’s dead body, but in the many religious icons that Dr. White cherishes. When the detective in charge of the murder case asks Dr. White why Amanda’s fingers may have been cut off after death, she proposes that the severing might be a symbolic gesture of stopping corruption and rot from spreading to the more vital parts of the body.

Tellingly, the doctor identifies corruption as her greatest fear, defining it as “the act or process of tainting or contaminating something. To cause something that has integrity to become rotten.” And, as the doctor’s reserve and barriers break down over the course of the novel, she muses on her decision to focus on hands as a career: “I want the hands, the fingers, the parts that connect us to the things of this world.” Coming from a woman whose relationships are mostly based on power dynamics, her words strike a surprising note of longing and vulnerability.

Turn of Mind is essentially a tragic novel. For all of its characters’ striving toward purity and ethical behavior, LaPlante seems to gently be reminding her readers that corruption—whether it be spiritual, emotional, or physical—is unavoidable for human beings. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the novel, I was reminded of the great words of T. S. Eliot, crying out at the conclusion of The Wasteland: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” In the face of ruin brought by life and death, the fragments offered here by LaPlante are indeed worth much.

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