What a lovely surprise I found reading Still Time—an elegant, sharply intelligent but emotionally intuitive novel that happens to have as its protagonist a retired Shakespearean scholar spiraling into Alzheimer’s.
Shakespeare? Alzheimer’s? I admit I opened the book with dread. I am not a fan of issues-centered novels, including issues that affect me, in other words including Alzheimer’s. I dislike books that glamorize victims. I cringe at them when they’re pathetic and when they’re noble, perky, and uplifting. I avoid educational books; even the Alzheimer’s bible The 36-Hour Day left me cold. And I hate preachy books period, whether fiction or non-fiction, whether or not I agree with the basic message, political, spiritual, or nutritional for that matter.
And while I have more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, I can’t say that a novel promising to delve into literary criticism of his plays would exactly whet my reading appetite.
But Hegland held my interest in the Bard all the way through—well, there was a bit of skimming in some of the longer winded bits on Shakespeare.
As for the Alzheimer’s bit, Hegland is the first author I’ve read who makes Alzheimer’s both a central element in the novel and a metaphor for larger questions the novel raises about the human condition.
As the novel opens John Wilson is moving into a nursing facility . His beloved fourth wife Sally, who supports him, feels she has no choice. She cannot manage her work as a bee keeper and care for him any longer at home.
While Hegland takes us inside John’s interior world, particularly his rumination and meditations on language, time, and memory in relationship to his enduring passion for Shakespeare—he memorized his first play, Romeo and Juliet when he was 19—she does not pretend to explain Alzheimer’s. We see the shrinkage of his world, the graying and narrowing, but John is a very particular combination of mind and heart, not a generic representative. Not too many folks with Alzheimer’s express themselves most clearly in Shakespearian verse. Not too many husbands on the eve of being institutionalized joke lovingly to their beekeeping wife, “Beauty is in the eye of the bee holder.”
At Sally’s prompting John receives a visit from his only daughter Miranda (named for Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest). The two have been estranged for ten years, ever since Miranda, then fifteen, accompanied John and his third wife to a literary conference in London. During the trip an incident occurred that scarred father and daughter in ways neither has been unable to share; each has therefore continued to misinterpret the other’s reaction.
So narratives lines from the present and the past twist together. John lives more and more deeply inside his mind, which remains alive to the language and the emotional resonance of Shakespeare’s plays even as he loses track of the concrete world around him. Meanwhile he and Miranda follow the confusing maze of their relationship to its center.
Miranda is not an academic scholar like John, but like him she is a lover for stories. And her talent and passion for video game art offer a provocative consideration of the creative experience and the evolution of creative forms.
At one point Miranda asks John which play is his favorite. Love’s Labors Won, he tells her and of course she thinks he means Love’s Labor’s Lost, but he explains, quite lucidly that Love’s Labor’s Won was actually registered but no copies have been found. Miranda understandably asks it the lost book is his favorite, “Because love won?”
“ ‘Because,’ he says impatiently, ‘it could be anything. It’s what we don’t…have, what we can only imagine. The possibilities.’ ”
Explore the possibilities of Still Time for yourself. I’d love to hear if you found it as profound as much as I did.