Title: Pale Highway
Author: Nicholas Conley
Published: 20th October 2015
Genre: Science-Fiction and Fantasy, Alzheimer’s Disease, Metaphysical & Visionary
Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novel – Predators & Editors Readers Poll 2015
“Steeped in suspense, Conley’s novel delves into the darker recesses of the medical establishment. Gabriel is a sympathetic character, and the reader is pulled into his private struggles.” – Publishers Weekly
“Pale Highway brings his struggles for survival along with his fierce desire to hold off his symptoms long enough to save everyone around him to brilliant, beautiful life.” – Examiner.com
Gabriel Schist is spending his remaining years at Bright New Day, a nursing home. He once won the Nobel Prize for inventing a vaccine for AIDS. But now, he has Alzheimer’s, and his mind is slowly slipping away.
When one of the residents comes down with a horrific virus, Gabriel realizes that he is the only one who can find a cure. Encouraged by Victor, an odd stranger, he convinces the administrator to allow him to study the virus. Soon, reality begins to shift, and Gabriel’s hallucinations interfere with his work.
As the death count mounts, Gabriel is in a race against the clock and his own mind. Can he find a cure before his brain deteriorates past the point of no return?
Body of review:
Thanks to the author who offered me an ARC copy of his novel that I freely chose to review.
When the author approached me about this novel, I didn’t know what to say. I don’t read a lot of science-fiction (although I’ve really enjoyed some of the sci-fi I’ve read. I think my main problem, and the same goes for fantasy, is that I don’t have much patience for world-building and descriptions) but he explained that although it was classed as science-fiction, and indeed it purports a world that is very similar to ours but with some differences (mostly, the protagonist of the novel, Gabriel Schist, years back discovered the HIV-vaccine but , rather than simply creating a vaccine against that illness, his vaccine reprograms the immune system of the person that receives it and protects them against many other illnesses), it was a bit different to most science-fiction. He told me, as mentioned in his biography, that he had worked in nursing homes and the novel was also about Alzheimer’s disease. I read the description of the novel and was intrigued. And yes, I agree with him, his novel is not a standard science-fiction novel, although it’s true that some of the best sci-fi looks at what makes us human and explores metaphysical issues.
The protagonist of the novel, Gabriel, a famous scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery, is in his early seventies and suffers from Alzheimer’s, fairly early stages, but noticeable enough. He is trying to hold on to his identity, testing his memory and using tricks to orientate himself and hold onto reality, but it is not without difficulties. The book wonderfully describes the residents of the nursing home, some of their peculiar behaviours, but also the persons behind the behaviours. The novel goes back and forth in time, as does the memory of the character, from 2018 to the 1950s, when Gabriel was a weird young boy (he seems to have presented some traits suggestive of autistic spectrum disorder, likely Asperger’s) already determined to solve the problem of future infectious diseases, and also covering the years when he met his wife, the dissolution of his marriage, his great discovery and how he eventually connected and got to know his daughter. All this is interspersed with what is happening now (well, in the very near future) at the nursing home, as Gabriel never goes out. Suddenly, some of the residents start getting ill, and the virus (if that’s what it is) puzzles everybody as it acts as no known illness. Gabriel starts to have strange experiences that he’s not sure if they are hallucinations or real (the readers are free to make up their own minds about this, although if one chooses to go with a rational explanation, there are enough clues within the story to suggest how his mind might have come up with such weird events) and becomes convinced that he’s the only one who can fight this terrible illness. His is a desperate race, not only against the illness itself but also against Alzheimer’s and the progressive degeneration of his mind.
The novel is written in the third person, although always from Gabriel’s point of view, giving the readers a great insight into the processes and difficulties of a mind coming undone, of the strength of memories of the past, sometimes more vivid than the present, and the style is fluid, with some beautifully descriptive passages, and some very vivid moments, particularly Gabriel’s memories, filled with emotion. Gabriel is a scientist and a keen observer, even in his current state, and that serves the novel well.
The characters are realistically drawn and it’s impossible not to care for them. Gabriel is confused and unclear at times, he hesitates and his self-confidence is marred by his illness and by previous experiences. He feels guilty for letting people down in the past, for his use of alcohol (initially to try and fit in with social expectations, as he was too different and too intelligent for most people, but later he got to like it and used it as a coping strategy but also as something he enjoyed), for allowing his wife to leave, for not being there for his daughter … He also feels guilty because he’s always said that human beings are predictable and not interesting enough and he hasn’t loved or cared for many of them. But his experiences through the novel put him to the test more than once and he discovers that it’s never too late to learn more about yourself. The author, who evidently has first-hand knowledge, depicts well the changes in humour, the confusion, the fear, the loneliness, the disorientation, and also the tenacity and the spirit of the elderly residents, including those moments when their personalities shine through the illness. The character of Melanie, Gabriel’s daughter, and her difficulty coming to terms with the illness of her father (all the harder because of his once brilliant mind), reflects well the difficulties of the families, with their guilty feelings for not visiting more often or for not being able to do more and their difficulty accepting the new circumstances (although not everybody is the same, of course).
The running of the facility, Bright New Day, also rings true. Understaffed, with routines to suit staff rather than residents, and with a mix of staff, some very caring and professional and others not so much. The novel is not an indictment of nursing homes, and other than one of the staff members, everybody works hard and is caring, but it does reflect the difficulties of running such facilities within a limited budget and trying to care for residents as individuals.
The plot is intriguing and the issue of if and how Gabriel might manage to defeat the virus is a page turner, although there are some very quirky aspects of the story that some readers might find challenging (not the scientific part as such. Although I’m a doctor I don’t think readers without medical knowledge will have difficulty with the general concepts behind Gabriel’s discovery. It is a fascinating idea). The story requires some suspension of disbelief although it is also possible to read some of the clues offered through the fragments of Gabriel’s memories as proof that a less fanciful interpretation of events is also possible. That is up to each reader.
I have to confess to feeling very moved by the story and being teary-eyed a couple of times but don’t worry, there are fun moments too and it is not a sad story but a life-affirming one. The ending, whatever interpretation we choose to go with is joyful and positive and might be meaningful to many readers.
This is not an easy novel to categorise in any genre. I think most people who are interested in Alzheimer’s will enjoy it, and people who like books on medical subjects, as long as they have a well-developed imagination. I recommend it also to people interested in memory, identity and in the big questions, and to those looking for a positive and inspiring read.
What the book is about: Many things. Being different and not fitting in, Alzheimer’s disease and care of the elderly, identity, the immune system, what makes us human, memory, family…
Book Highlights: I’m a doctor, although not a researcher, but the part about Gabriel’s research does not require hard science or lots of knowledge to be understood. It’s the concept what makes it work and the beauty of it. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of residents at the nursing home, with their quirks and their individual personalities that feel very real. And the positive message. It is a life-affirming book.
Challenges of the book: As mentioned above I don’t think the science part is too complicated as it is the general concept what is important to the story. Some of the weirder aspects of the book (the slugs, it’s not much of a spoiler as it is commented upon in quite a few of the reviews) might be a barrier for some readers, although each individual can interpret it at will. It might be difficult to read for people with relatives suffering from Alzheimer’s, although it is written with care and affection.
What do you get from it: A good insight into what Alzheimer’s might be like for sufferers: the confusion, the loneliness, the fear, and also the moments of joy and how important memories and little things can be. It’s an inspiring book with a very positive message.
What I would have changed if anything: As I mentioned, some of the quirkier aspects might be hard on some readers, but I wouldn’t change anything.
Who Would I recommend this book to?: People interested in Alzheimer’s and elderly health care with a capacity for wonder and inspiration. Also, those interested in a book with medical subjects, although they must have some imagination.
Realistic Characterization: This one is a bit difficult in this book. Let’s say the characters who are residents and staff in the nursing home (and Melanie, Gabriel’s daughter) 4.5/5. The others… 3/5
Made Me Think: 4.5/5
Overall enjoyment: 4.5/5
Overall Rating: 5/5
Thanks for reading and remember to like, share, comment and click!
Olga Núñez Miret