Saturday, April 11, 2009

Harrowing hell, and the hell of Alzheimer's

Holy Saturday--Jesus may have rested, but everyone in DuPage County is out buying groceries. Jesus may have been busy too. According to ancient tradition, he spent his down time in hell, or the world of the dead, or wherever Adam and Eve were hanging out in hopes that he'd show up. Orthodox icons show him lifting them out of the depths, offering them back the life they so badly messed up the first time.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a variation of hell--the living death that is Alzheimer's disease. My mother, my father, my mother-in-law, and my best friend's mother all died of it, so when I learned that two new novels feature a main character with Alzheimer's, and that both books tell the story from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer's--an almost impossible task, I thought--I felt driven to read them.

And then this week while I was writing a review of the two books, I heard from my friend Evelyn Bence, who has just posted "Receive My Memory" on the Image blog. I love her beautiful essay about visiting her dear friend John Breslin, SJ, a brilliant man whose memories are leaking away.

I'm not going to post my review here unless the magazine I'm writing for decides not to accept it. I'll just direct you to two realistic, emotionally shattering stories, both by first-time novelists in their thirties (how do they know so much about this disease?). If you like well-defined linear stories about women and their relationships--"hen lit"--I recommend Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Simon & Schuster: Pocket Books). If you prefer literary fiction that brings up philosophical questions about human nature and leaves you wondering what really happened, read The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (Random House: Nan A. Talese). P.S., June 1: The full review is up at the Books & Culture web site, .

Both books are brilliant but draining: perfect for Lent and a great antidote to the Easter bunny. Alzheimer's disease is one of an infinite number of reasons why hell needs to be harrowed.

Holy Saturday is almost over. Soon the Easter candle will be lit.

1 comment:

LaVonne Neff said...

In the UK, Samantha Harvey's "The Wilderness" has been longlisted for the Guardian book award ( Four months ago it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize ( Amazon figures indicate that it's still not all that popular in the US--which is a shame. It's a seriously good book.