What if you were to lose every memory you ever had?

The first words present on the front cover of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice straightforwardly set out the framework of the novel. To be expected: a book about memory and what happens when you start losing it. Indeed, the novel narrates the story of Alice, a brilliant linguistic professor at Harvard’s, and how she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. Written with a realistic and simple tone, Still Alice shows how the disease affects every aspect of her life and personality. She begins forgetting her duties, she loses the perception of time, she doesn’t remember her children and can’t concentrate enough to read a book or watch a movie. Not only does the disease alter her own life, but also the lives of her relatives: everyone struggles with the consequences of Alice’s pernicious illness. Even though Alzheimer’s allows Alice to have a new set of relationships and a few positive changes, it never stops until everything is forgotten. In light of that, Alice will have to face a Cornelian (or maybe Shakespearean?) dilemma: to live or not to live? Is life worth living, if the foundations of who you are disappear?

If this is the first obvious question asked by the book, there is a second question that grabs our attention and that distinguishes Still Alice from other novels about dementia: the rela-tionship between memory and words. In fact, a powerful way to remember something is literature. The written words allow us to fix the past, a process that the Romans already knew: verba volant, scripta manent. So, if Alice doesn’t try to write directly her memoirs, the novel, with Alice’s first-person point of view, explores what a narrator with dementia actually experiences. When Alice forgets what she’s just said, she repeats it and the book repeats it as well. The direct succession of two identical sentences or groups of words is a powerful way to show the reader the common issues faced by a person with Alzheimer’s. Moreover, Lisa Genova’s novel narrates an ironic but strong message. Alice is a linguist who worked on the relationship between mind and language. So, if even a fifty-year-old language expert, a professional in the mechanisms of the mind, can get Alzheimer, this disease should not be underestimated: it can affect anybody.

Ultimately, the book delivers an important message for all of us: it informs the reader about the repercussions of a (still) quite unknown disease. But reflecting on the boundaries be-tween words and memories, the novel also underlines the power of literature: written words are a forceful way of remembering the past. Doing this, Genova enters into an older literary tradition. Indeed, the famous French novelist of the 20th century, Annie Ernaud, would not have denied Genova’s approach. This is the message of her most acclaimed book, Les Années : Des mots pour sauver quelque chose du temps où l’on ne sera plus jamais.

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