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Monday, April 13, 2009

The Land of Forgetting

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Despite the prevailing notion that Alzheimer's only affects those of an advanced age, hundred of thousands of adults under the age of 60 are afflicted by the disease. As sufferers of early-onset Alzheimer's undergo a gradual regression into the dependence of infancy, their friends and relatives painfully witness their devolution from familiarity to estrangement. It's a torturous transition one rarely encounters in literary fiction, which makes a new book by first-time novelist Stefan Merrill Block all the more intriguing.

In The Story of Forgetting, Block weds firsthand experience of the effects of the disease (which runs in his family) with historical fiction and scientific fact. The story unfolds as a dual narrative related by an aged and lonesome hunchback pining for his lost family and a hermitic teenage boy searching desperately for a cure to his mother's advancing amnesia.

Knitting the two together with a diaphanous thread is the story of a mythical land, Isidora, that bears more than passing comparison to the fabled, fabulous lands of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Despite its evasive presence and contradictory origin, or perhaps because of them, Isidora is among the most compelling aspects of the novel. It lucidly captures the sense of homecoming, a "pilgrimage to the place of our ancestors" that is the somewhat poetic flip side of the disease. Isidora becomes an extended metaphor for that sense of return to one's genetic inheritance, lending a certain mystery to the state of forgetfulness. Block comes to the new Next Chapter Bookshop, formerly known as the Harry W. Schwartz in Mequon, on April 20 at 7 p.m.

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