“Still Alice is as compelling as A Beautiful Mind and as powerful as Ordinary People.”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Beautiful and distressing, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of everyday life with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It reveals how difficult it is to be diagnosed, Alice herself even assuming that she has hit menopause, or that she has a tumour (the latter of which she would have at least a chance of fighting). We accompany Alice on her journey of learning how to cope with the disease, if such a thing is possible, and witness her husband’s denial as he refuses to believe that his wife could be fading away.

Tracking the rapid progress of the disease, Alice begins misplacing objects such as her Blackberry or keys. Something that we all do. But her day-to-day life becomes increasingly difficult as her memory gets worse and worse. She struggles to find words that she uses daily, becomes disorientated in her own town, phones the wrong people, struggles to hold conversations, and reading books and watching films eventually become too much for her. She is forced to leave her position at Harvard and watches painfully as her husband continues his busy and successful career. Unable to beat the disease, Alice is unable to even recognise her own children.

I would like to think that this is fiction. That people don’t have to live with this awful illness. But Genova’s profession as a neuroscientist and the time spent researching and talking to not just professionals in the field, but patients too, provides hard-hitting facts. What offers a minuscule amount of comfort though, and believe me it’s needed, is the bond that grows between her and her daughters as a result of the disease.
I have only one issue with this book. I want to make it clear that I do not intend to offend anyone. I myself aspire to be a university lecturer one day. But that Alice is a world-renowned Harvard professor whose research area is cognitive function suggests, to me at least, that the tragedy of Alzheimer’s is heightened when it hits an intellectual. But of course, it is equally as awful and distressing no matter who you are. And this is where my conflict lies. Being told the journey by a professor who studies linguistics and cognitive psychology is certainly an effective means of understanding the disease. It is also an area that Genova is obviously comfortable with.

It gives us an insight that perhaps a character of another profession would not give us. And it does seem to enhance our journey with Alice as we witness the disintegration of her borderline genius mind. But I can’t help thinking that having this knowledge of the mind, how it functions, having a husband who is more than familiar with all of the possible drug trials, perhaps places her in a position that most people aren’t in. This isn’t to say that this person would find it any less difficult, or that I feel the character shouldn’t be an intelligent upper class person, not at all, but perhaps one day, it would be nice for Genova to write a sister novel that is a little more accessible to the average person?
Having said this, there are beautiful parts of the novel where Genova stresses that Alice’s worth is comprised of more than her profession and even her ability to remember. What is important is her ability to see. To feel. To love.
This isn’t the type of book that I would ever choose of my own accord. If it wasn’t the chosen read for the book club, I would have grabbed the new Danielewski book instead. But I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone. This is an important book. The prose is perhaps a little clumsy, but it is informative, inspiring, and compassionate. In places it is heart-warming. The end, heart-breaking.

 

Reviewed by:

Sammy Evans, Poetic Pieces

Added 2nd June 2015

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