Pageturner, alzheimers and novel aren’t three words you’d normally expect to see in the same sentence, and yet they go together to describe Still Alice, the debut from Simon & Schuster by Lisa Genova. When I saw the blurb I was a bit reluctant to start reading, thinking the subject would be depressing and stressful. How wrong I was.
Still Alice is a remarkable novel that will change the way you view alzheimers and the way you respond to people with this condition. It will change the way you think about alzheimers if you are ever diagnosed with it, and will certainly influence the way you relate to people close to you if they become affected. If you are already living with alzheimers, as a patient or as a friend, relative or professional, Still Alice is a novel you should take a look at.
Genova puts us right inside the experience of alzheimers by telling this story through the first person narrative of Alice, a university professor who is just 50 when she gets her diagnosis. She knows exactly what this will mean because, like Genova, she is a neuroscience specialist. The novel opens with Alice at her most capable intellectually – known in academic circles for her amazing ability to remember the detailed facts of her subject, including where precisely to find the quotes to reference research papers.
Alice relaxes by jogging round her town, knowing the map of the area and loving her independence. Admired by her colleagues and loved by her husband and daughters, she’s the type of career woman and successful family organiser many would aspire to emulate. Like us, she puts the first signs of memory loss down to trying to do too many things at once, but the diagnosis comes quite early in the novel. After that, due to her professional expertise, she knows how to recognise and chart her own progress into alzheimers and how she feels she should prepare for what is to come.
This knowledge also lets her find strategies to cope with each stage and to plan for what she wants to do when it goes too far. She knows she won’t be able to remember how or why she will want to end it all at a certain stage, so she leaves instructions for herself that she hopes she will follow regardless. Her Blackberry soon becomes her way of giving herself a To Do list to follow, as memory fails, and it has one important instruction of how to find the means of suicide on the day she can’t remember the answer to a few simple questions.
Once she no longer remembers simple information about her family she feels it will be time to use some items she has prepared to kill herself. Many of us would feel we would want to do the same. But as the story progresses, as we really feel what it is like to be Alice, will we still want her to commit suicide at that key moment or will we see alzheimers in a different way? Will Alice manage to go through with her initial plan right to the end?
I won’t spoil Still Alice by giving you the answers to this. All I can say is that suicide won’t be a plan I’ll be making if I ever get this diagnosis, and I’ll remember Alice if ever those close to me are affected by alzheimers. I will never see this condition in the same way again, and that’s a remarkable achievement by a novelist writing about such an important subject. On a purely stylistic level, Genova never swerves from her course of only seeing this through Alice’s eyes, and once we start this experience with her we can’t stop reading until we see it through.