Meet Alice, a brilliant 50-year-old academic faced with a shock diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lisa Genova uses this strong starting point to create a gripping piece of fiction, a heart-wrenching personal journey towards the ultimate loss – the loss of oneself. At times it is agonising to walk in her shoes but Alice is such an appealing and downright interesting character you would follow her anywhere.
The reader accompanies Alice to doctor’s appointments, lectures (she’s a linguistics professor at Harvard) and family celebrations. You are there when she gets hopelessly lost on her regular jogging route, starts repeating herself and stops recognising people. Hearing the story from Alice’s perspective, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by her predicament. In the gap between what she feels and what she can express are some of the most poignant moments of the book.
The relationships Alice has with her husband John and three children are nicely flawed and complex. Successful, driven and somewhat selfish, John is poorly equipped to deal with the impact of the illness on them both. But there are just enough glimpses of his heartache and confusion to persuade us to care about him too.
We know that things are only going to get worse for Alice. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and yet the suspense is sustained throughout the story. What is going to happen next? How bad will it get? Will she do something drastic?
As well as being a character-driven novel, Still Alice documents the diagnosis, treatment and progression of Alzheimer’s. I can imagine it’s a fascinating and useful account for those directly affected by the disease, which is why the U.S. Alzheimer’ Association endorsed it. There is quite a lot of medical detail included but the stakes are so high for the main character that you want this information and it doesn’t interfere with the flow.
Another outstanding novel which has serious illness as the central theme, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That changed the way I looked at cancer. Still Alice has now done the same for Alzheimer’s. Every illness brings its own special world of pain and havoc and the more we learn about it the more forewarned and compassionate we can be. A book that almost makes you feel the illness has turned up uninvited at your door is storytelling at its best.
I’ll be posting a review of Lisa Genova’s remarkable first novel Still Alice over the weekend. In the meantime, some interesting advice from the author.
‘I know so many aspiring writers who are sitting in a holding pattern, with a work completed, waiting to find a literary agent. They’re stuck, unable to give themselves permission to write the next book because they’re waiting to find out if their work is “good enough”, waiting to find out if they’re a “real writer”. This state of waiting, of not writing and self-doubt, is the worst state any writer can be in.
My advice is this: If you don’t find a literary agent falling into your lap quickly enough, if you feel like your work is done and is ready to be shared with the world, self-publish. Give your work to the world. Let it go. And keep writing. Freedom!’
Genova’s powerful novel about Alzheimer’s was a special case, which followed a unique path to publication. Before the book was published, the Harvard neuroscientist contacted the marketing department of the Alzheimer’s Association, thinking they might be interested in some way, “perhaps endorsing it or providing a link to it from their website”. She sent them the link to the book’s website, which she’d created before the book was published. The marketing rep got in touch, asking for a copy of the manuscript. Even though they didn’t normally considering “partnering” books, they loved it and wanted to give it their stamp of approval. The association asked Genova to write the blog for an awareness campaign they were launching at the end of that month.
“Realising that I’d created something that the Alzheimer’s Association thought was valuable, that could help educate and reassure the millions of people trying to navigate the world with Alzheimer’s, I felt an urgent responsibility to get the book out immediately.” She said yes to the blog and yes to the affiliation and went ahead and self-published Still Alice in 2007, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.
May I introduce myself? I was the person sitting next to you on the flight last Sunday who had to keep closing her book because she was welling up. I also had to keep going back to it because I was hooked by the plot. What was I reading? Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald. I don’t normally read young adult fiction; it all looks a bit deliberately silly to me – judging by the covers (I know!). But this novel is different. The main character Cosmo is like Adrian Mole’s sweet younger cousin. He has all the right instincts in the face of life’s challenges, without the judgement or the conviction to make the right moves. Cosmo can’t really handle his emotions and yet he is the character who remains truest to those he loves.
Who hasn’t dreamt of going back in time to see how our forefathers lived? The Blackbrick of the title is the stately home where Cosmo’s grandfather lived and worked as a boy. Distressed at his grandfather’s decline brought on by Alzheimer’s, Cosmo goes back to Blackbrick and discovers a way to unlock the secrets that overshadowed his grandfather’s early life. There are some pretty adult themes in Backto Blackbrick – bereavement, the perils of the class system and the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers. But here is a writer who can make you smile when she describes the tragic advance of dementia, who celebrates the bonds of family and friendship no matter what. If you are looking for something a little more meaningful to buy your teenagers or bright pre-teens, Back to Blackbrick is it.
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s book was launched earlier this month in Limerick and Dublin, published by Orion. The US version will be published soon as far as I know and translations are in the pipeline. So, bearing in mind the small disclaimer that I was once Sarah’s sweet younger cousin (less sweet now), rest assured this is an exceptional piece of fiction. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Back-Blackbrick-Sarah-Moore-Fitzgerald/dp/1444006592