Turn of Mind tells the spellbinding story of Dr. Jennifer White, a sixty-four year old retired orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands, who is implicated in the murder of her neighbour and best friend, Amanda O'Toole. What makes this story so unusual is that it is told in the voice of an obviously intelligent woman as she slips between lucid moments and periods of dementia. Jennifer recounts what is happening to her in the present but also reveals pieces of her life as she remembers them. From this the reader must try to piece together what happened the day Amanda was murdered but also must attempt to understand Jennifer's past and her relationship with the murdered woman.
The novel opens with the police questioning Jennifer in her home at 2153 Sheffield Avenue in Chicago where she lives with her personal caretaker, Magdalena. Her neighbour, 75 year old Amanda has been found dead in her home just down the street from Jennifer. Jennifer is a prime suspect because Amanda's corpse has been found mutilated - four fingers on her right hand have been surgically removed. When Jennifer is interviewed by Detective Luton, she apparently has no idea that her friend has been murdered, nor can she really provide any information to police. The persistent Luton, however, is convinced that locked in Jennifer's mind somewhere is the truth about what happened to Amanda.
Throughout the novel, the reader, through Jennifer's narration, gradually explores the complex relationship Jennifer and her husband James had with Amanda and her husband Peter as well as the relationship she had with her children, Mark and Fiona. Jennifer was married to James, an attorney, who recently passed away due to a heart attack which occurred while he was driving. Amanda and Peter, who had no children, eventually divorced after 40 years of marriage, with Peter moving to California to live with a younger woman. Amanda and Jennifer had a combative but close relationship; both women had strong personalities and were very controlling.
Jennifer's voice is authentic and very realistic when she is suffering through her episodes of dementia. This is especially so as she describes her actions and feelings whenever she wanders, whether it be from her home or from the care facility she is placed in later on. Jennifer's narration reveals that the two couples became emotionally entangled, and that secrets where discovered on both sides. It is difficult, in my opinion, for the reader to determine whether or not Jennifer did murder her friend - an indication that Alice LaPlante succeeds brilliantly in masking the truth until the very end of the novel. There are plenty of hints and plenty of potential suspects too! The ending with its ultimate (and possibly even predictable) twist is quite satisfying.
Two of the more unusual themes in this novel are that of religion and hands, both of which are separate themes and yet also interconnected. The main character, Jennifer White is a lapsed Catholic who hasn't been to confession in 46 years. Because she studied medieval history as a graduate student prior to medical school, Jennifer has managed to collect various Catholic artifacts over the years, such as a large statue of St. Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of impossible causes, and a St. Christopher medal (patron saint of travelers). But among her most prized is a copy of The Icon of The Three Hands. The latter item is worked into the novel in a fascinating way because it involves the loss of a hand, a healing and it also identifies the nature of the relationship between Jennifer and Amanda.
The icon was painted by St. John of Damascus who lived under Muslim rule and therefore was forbidden to have images or statues. The Byzantine Emperor, Leo III issued a verdict forbidding veneration of holy images, which John wrote against numerous times. When the Emperor denounced John to the Caliph, his right hand which he used to write the treatises defending veneration was cut off. After begging to be given his amputated hand, he prayed for hours in front of an icon of the Mother of God and his hand was healed. In thanksgiving to the Theotokos, John of Damascus added a third hand - a copy of his own right hand made of silver. The Mother of God icon is thus known as the Icon of the Three Hands.
An expensive 15th century copy of this unusual icon was purchased by James for Jennifer who was drawn to it, perhaps because she is a surgeon who specializes in healing hands, something the icon represents. When Amanda sees the icon she immediately covets it but not for the same reasons as Jennifer. It is something Jennifer loves dearly and Amanda recognizing this uses this situation to warn Jennifer that she knows something about her and James - a secret that could unravel their life. The reader is presented with this view of Amanda as a manipulative and controlling woman who is determined to find a weakness in James and Jennifer.
If you'd like a novel with a bit of mystery, told in a unique way and which touches on themes of love, betrayal, power, aging and identity, Turn of Mind, winner of the prestigious Wellcome Trust Book Prize, will more than satisfy.
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
Bond Street Books Doubleday Canada 2011