Welcome to my Sunday Book Review. I was very much looking forward to Carol Balawyder’s newest release – The Lilac Notebook, and Carol’s books never disappoint. Carol’s story is a delicious mixture of broken and dubious characters. This murder mystery encompasses much more than just murders, always left with a calling card – a post card of Vincent Van Gogh’s, Starry Night.
The author takes on the challenge of early onset Alzheimer’s, as her protagonist Holly is navigating through beginning stages of the horrible disease, and in the process, her incompassionate husband Roy, leaves her, although he agrees to take care of her financially (isn’t that charming?). And once Holly sets up her new life and apartment near McGill University in Montreal, she decides to take a poetry class there to keep her mind sharp. While there, she befriends Kim and Amelia, both victims of childhood abuse, but they’ve digested their horrors in different ways, and so both of them are affected different ways.
Three university friends. One in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, another out for revenge and a third murdered.
Holly Baranov is in the beginning stages of fast advancing Alzheimer’s at 40. Unwilling to care for her, Holly’s husband leaves her. While frightened to be on her own, Holly is relieved to be freed from the clutches of a controlling husband.
She moves out of her large home in the middle-class west end section of Montreal and into a small apartment near McGill University where she enrols in a poetry course in the hopes of stimulating her brain.
There she meets Kim Harris, a thirty-something beautiful but damaged law student and Amelia Rose, a twenty-year-old pole dancer in a seedy nightclub who wants nothing more than to graduate, teach high school, marry and raise a family. Both Kim and Amelia were victims of incest, though each see her perpetrator differently. Kim chose law so as to right the justice she was denied while Amelia is angry at the justice system for separating her from a flawed father who was nonetheless her whole world.
When Amelia is found strangled in her apartment, Holly becomes involved in the investigation, both as prime suspect and as a means to defend herself.
Detective Alice Vireovich and her rookie partner, Detective Dan Cardoni, currently investigating the murders of two middle aged men, are also tasked with investigating Amelia’s murder: They come to believe all three murders may be linked because of a Van Gogh Starry Night postcard found at the scene of all three crimes.
Holly’s health worsens quickly. She is transferred to a support facility. Along with her fading memory, Holly is also losing her ability to speak and write. She is uncertain whether she killed Amelia as her friend Kim, ex-husband Roy and the police suspect.
A niece (whom Holly doesn’t recognize and whose motives she distrusts for suddenly wanting to help her) visits Holly regularly and reads Holly’s notes about Amelia’s investigation. This eventually leads the investigation away from her as they seem to implicate Kim.
Kim’s law teacher at McGill agrees to take on the case pro bono, motivated by her interest in litigating whether damaging effects of childhood abuse pose the question whether murder can ever be justified in such cases.
The expanding investigation leads to more findings relating to the postcard found next to Amelia’s body, bringing into view a surprising new suspect.
My 5 Star Review:
Another page turner by Carol Balawyder. The book begins with our introduction to Holly’s life and marriage to Roy. He is a dominating husband who realizes he doesn’t want to take care of his wife when she is newly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, so he asked her for a divorce – charming he is not. Not completely heartless, Roy sets up Holly in a lovely apartment near McGill University. Holly enrolls in a poetry class in efforts to keep her mind intact. She also keeps her Lilac Notebook handy so she can write down things she wants to remember for that proverbial day her memory leaves her for good. But it turns out, Holly keeps more notes in that book than just things to remember in her daily life.
Holly meets two girls in poetry class, who ultimately, will unknowingly, bring Holly into a murder scenario . Kim is beautiful, in her thirties, law student, and damaged from the incestuous abuse of her childhood, and Amelia is a mere twenty years old who pays for her schooling through her pole dancing activities at a dance bar. Amelia has a father complex. Her father touched her in places a father shouldn’t ever, since she was a very young child, and Amelia took that as love and still misses her father after her mother threw him out a few years prior.
One day Holly calls on Amelia, and when she doesn’t answer, Holly discovers her dead body in her apartment when she tried the unlocked door. All we know at that point is that Kim drove Amelia home, and Amelia was supposed to be meeting an online date at a cafe after Kim dropped her off, and Holly’s husband Roy had previously been spotted with Amelia. Yet, there’s also a serial killer out there and one of his Van Gogh postcards was left behind at the murder scene. Could any of these characters be the killer?
With Holly’s inner confusion, she trains herself to make mental notes in her head and in her Lilac Notebook about her own investigation about facts she’d gathered about Amelia’s last moves, before those remembered moments get jumbled in her head. So while she still has her wits about her, Holly keeps notes of all she’s seen and her thoughts on possible suspects.
Holly found a phone number in Amelia’s coat pocket and discovers the meetup time at the cafe. Not yet telling anyone, including the police, Holly ventures out to the cafe to feign accidentally meeting the person who Amelia was to meet to see if she can detect foul play. But when someone decides to implicate Holly as the potential killer, her mixed up mind goes into tailspin when she begins doubting herself and her own memory as people ignorant about Alzheimer’s are whispering that Alzheimer’s patients can get violent. But why would Holly want to kill Amelia? Holly becomes the amateur sleuth in the case on her own until she herself becomes the suspect. Holly now with trouble speaking, although her mind seems clear on what she wants to say, keeps all her thoughts and investigations in that Lilac Notebook.
The story brings in murder, incest, abuse and Alzheimer’s and ties them in all together succinctly, giving us well researched information about the state of Holly’s mind. Balawyder demonstrates the human condition by sharing what goes on in Holly’s head, the lack of compassion from some people, and the sadness of Holly losing her independence through her horrible journey through the mind-stealing disease.
This book was hard to put down as suspects were mounting, and poor Holly who had enough to contend with in her own upside down world, besides the police on her case, because her finger prints were found in Amelia’s apartment, and someone is looking for a scapegoat to hide their crime. I had my idea about who the perp was, but the author knew how to throw in those curveballs that continued to have me change my mind, adding a great twist on a suspect as the killer is ultimately revealed.
The author has done an amazing job informing us with her research, about the dark path that Alzheimer’s takes on one’s life by incorporating the knowledge through Holly’s words, thoughts, and actions. At the same time, Balawyder has taken us on a nail-biting story of a murder among friends with some unscrupulous characters to keep us guessing till the end.