Nicholas Conley’s debut novel, Pale Highway, has an unlikely setting: a long term care home. The protagonist is even more unlikely: a Nobel Prize-winning scientist losing his battle with Alzheimer’s. Once hailed as a saviour for developing a vaccine against AIDS, Gabriel Schist is slowly losing touch with everything he held dear, until it appears a new, deadly, virus has arisen, one that only Gabriel can understand and fight.
Conley has worked in care homes with Alzheimer’s patients, and this is clear not only from his descriptions of the environment, procedures, and organization of these homes, but from his accurate, compassionate depiction of the residents. Pale Highway is a science-fiction story, but it is also speculative fiction, speculative in terms of what reality is and might be in the mind of a man with Alzheimer’s.
The major characters in Pale Highway are complex and fully developed, and the prose lucid. The plot is suspenseful, and Conley finely balances the reader’s perceptions: is what is occurring in these pages real at all, or is everything happening within the disintegrating mind of Gabriel Schist? Like Life of Pi, the book questions what constitutes reality.
Gabriel’s struggle to maintain some control over his failing mind, not only to solve the medical crisis facing the world, but to hold on to his relationship with his daughter, is presented movingly and realistically. His current struggle reflects past struggles in his life. The novel jumps between past and present, showing us how Gabriel’s past issues have forged his character and determination.
My only niggle was that I found some aspects of Gabriel’s reality difficult to suspend belief enough to accept. Both how Gabriel is given help to do his work, and his ability to obtain the materials needed, led me to the conclusion that the actions must be taking place only in his mind. But that, I think, is a limitation of my imagination, not a limitation of the story; another reader may come to a different conclusion. Overall, 4 stars, for an impressive debut novel.
The author provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.