The protagonist in Alison McGhee’s latest novel is losing her mother to early-onset Alzheimer’s, and she wonders in the opening lines when her mother began to disappear. “Did something inside her change in a single moment? Quit working? Decide enough was enough? Hard to say. Hard to know.”

Clara Winter, 31, the distressed daughter in “Never Coming Back,” has spent little time with her mother, Tamar, since she left their small Adirondacks mountain town to attend college in New Hampshire. Now that it’s almost too late — Tamar, 51, is rapidly deteriorating mentally and physically — Clara wants answers to questions she’s always been afraid to ask.

It’s ironic because Clara makes her living as a wordsmith. In her one-person business, “Words by Winter,” she’s paid to put into words what other people can’t write for themselves: letters of apology, toasts, birthday wishes and eulogies. She’s never been able to put into words the things she’s wondered about herself and her mother. Who is her father? Why does Tamar only eat food out of jars and cans with a cocktail fork? Why did she attend church choir practice for 30 years but never attend church services? Most painfully for Clara, what did Tamar say to Asa, Clara’s high school boyfriend, to make him break up with her? Asa later died in Afghanistan and Clara has never recovered. She blames her mother for Asa’s enlistment.

“Never Coming Back” is Clara’s journey to enlightenment as much as it is her mother’s retreat into the darkness of a horrifying disease. How, she wonders, should she react when Tamar asks “How do I know you again?” As Clara watches her mother slip away she must also decide whether she wants to know if she, too, carries the gene mutation for Alzheimer’s and what she’ll do with that knowledge if it turns out she may face what her mother is now dealing with.

This sensitive novel answers some but not all of Clara’s questions as it offers readers an intimate and painfully aware portrait of the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s on its victims as well as the people who must watch their tormented loved ones tumble into the disease’s terrible abyss.

While contemplating her career as a writer, Clara thinks that “the hardest part about words-making wasn’t the words themselves but the invisible scaffolding that lifted their black-and-white stick-figure-ness from the page and turned it into heart and soul.” It’s what McGhee, who has won four Minnesota Book Awards, does in “Never Coming Back,” a novel about profound sadness, insurmountable loss and the possibility of allowing new people into your life.

 

Carol Memmott also reviews books for the Washington Post.

By: Alison McGhee.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 248 pages, $26.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. Oct. 17, Milkweed Books, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. Oct. 23, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, $11; 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater, $11; 7 p.m. Dec. 6, Common Good Books, St. Paul.