Turn of Mind was the first novel to win the Wellcome Book Prize, back in 2011. It was also one of the first of a number of novels and stories which used the conceit of Dementia as a vehicle for investigating a murder within a crime fiction context. As such, it’s a really interesting example of Dementia being explored in fiction. The plot is reasonably simple. Dr Jennifer White, a once highly gifted surgeon, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She finds her friend Amanda stabbed to death and is horrified to discover four of her fingers have been so expertly removed they could easily be, (no pun intended), her own handiwork. Jennifer can’t remember killing her friend, but she can’t be sure she didn’t do it either and suspicion naturally falls upon her. She doesn’t entirely understand the situation and therefore doesn’t know how to react appropriately.
“My guess is that a smile would be inappropriate. Fear might not be.”
I’ll not give away any spoilers because this is an exceptionally well-written, twisty and addictive crime fiction read. You’ll want to enjoy it for yourself without knowing how the story turns out. What I will say is that LaPlante is utterly convincing writing in Jennifer’s voice. The novel gives us such a great insight into what it’s like for a person to be so confused, she no longer even knows what she’s capable of. Jennifer is driven by the desire to piece the events together and find out what’s actually happened. She begins to keep a notebook of facts and this becomes a narrative device effectively employed by LaPlante to fill in the gaps in Jennifer’s memory, keeping the reader clear about the chain of events and timings. We are also given snippets of conversations between Jennifer and her children, and live-in caregiver Magdalena, though increasingly Jennifer is unclear who these people are, and the reader is also unsure which of them are to be trusted. Jennifer suspects everyone, even herself and as we’re following the story from her perspective, we are also encouraged to be distrustful too. Jennifer’s narrative slips in and out of different time periods; memories mixing with facts and perceptions so it’s almost impossible to know what is true.
I really enjoyed this novel. I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the few examples of Dementia fiction where I found the plot utterly compelling and just as interesting as the characterisation. The Dementia aspect of Turn of Mindcould easily have been reduced down to a simple conceit, nothing more than a clever device for writing crime fiction. However, LaPlante has clearly done her research and both the voice and characterisation of Jennifer is utterly believable. This is a very realistically drawn character living with Dementia who is also caught up in an intriguing story. It’s easy to see why the novel impressed the Wellcome Prize judges.
Turn of Mind was published by Vintage in 2011