Somewhere near the top of the short list of dreaded medical diagnoses is Alzheimer's disease. And how much more tragic is it when that disease strikes someone long before old age has descended? That dark prospect is the subject of 24-year-old Stefan Merrill Block's compassionate, heartbreaking, funny and consistently engaging first novel, The Story of Forgetting.
Seth Waller is a precocious, some would say "geeky," 15-year-old living outside Austin, Texas. When his mother Jamie's merely annoying forgetfulness morphs into a strain of early onset Alzheimer's known as EOA-23, Seth embarks on a stealthy "empirical investigation" seeking the roots of her disorder. Along the way, he meets victims of the disease and their family members, their encounters played out in scenes both vivid and poignant.
Paralleling Seth's story is that of Abel Haggard, an elderly hunchback spending his dwindling days in a ramshackle house near Dallas, on what's left of what was once a thriving farm. Abel bears the searing memory of having fathered a child with his sister-in-law while his twin brother Paul served in the Army. Like Seth, his life has been scarred by the loss of family members to Alzheimer's. The novel's narrative unfolds deliberately, revealing how the lives of Abel and Seth are inextricably linked. That some may discover the source of their connection relatively early in the book does nothing to detract from its emotionally resonant final scenes.
Interspersed with the main narrative are fascinating chapters entitled "Genetic History," describing the role of the Mapplethorpe family of England and its descendants in spreading the EOA-23 gene across the globe. Alongside this science are enchanting mythological tales of a land called Isidora, "where every need is met and every sadness is forgotten." In an author's note, Block reveals the prodigious research that informs and enriches this story. Yet he never permits that research to eclipse the storytelling skills on display in this accomplished first novel. His own family history spurred an interest in Alzheimer's, since many of his mother's relatives, including his maternal grandmother, suffered from the disease. The only question about what's sure to be his eagerly awaited next work will be whether he can discover another subject about which he cares so passionately and speaks so eloquently.