Gabriel Schist is spending his remaining years at Bright New Day, a nursing home. He once won the Nobel Prize for inventing a vaccine for AIDS. But now, he has Alzheimer’s, and his mind is slowly slipping away.
When one of the residents comes down with a horrific virus, Gabriel realizes that he is the only one who can find a cure. Encouraged by Victor, an odd stranger, he convinces the administrator to allow him to study the virus. Soon, reality begins to shift, and Gabriel’s hallucinations interfere with his work.
As the death count mounts, Gabriel is in a race against the clock and his own mind. Can he find a cure before his brain deteriorates past the point of no return?
With a growing elderly population, this book serves as not only a character study on one man’s fight against his own mind and body but also to highlight the continuing need to help the older generation and try to understand before it is our turn.
The name of the nursing home where Gabriel resides is the Bright New Day Skilled Nursing Center which is one of those names that by association makes the place sound awfully bleak. Behind the name is and let’s be fair a pretty cynical business structure in a lot of cases, staffed by worker who want to make a difference but are strung out by the lack of help and corner cutting, as the author’s own experiences in this field attest.
It is poignant and refreshing for a book to be written about those who feel forgotten by their relatives and the outside world, it’s perhaps something that should scare, the fear that our bodies could rebel against us and we would end up confused and in one of these centres. This is captured well here, the day-to-day struggles of keeping one’s dignity and constantly finding one’s place in the world make for a sense of dislocation and reorientation something that is more of a habit than innate.
I found it a challenge to focus on the book in hand as opposed to real life as both are so intertwined, which is the book’s strongest point. Fleshing out Gabriel’s character in particular with chapters detailing, in order some of the key moments of his life, allow a compare and contrast with the man we know and the journey he has taken. It’s a rich life, full of vitality and experience, a reminder to us all to pay attention to who we meet and how we can effect one another.
Gabriel’s desire to learn and combat this new and gory – as the author always does so well – virus, whilst simultaneously living with the fear of having his cognitive powers taken away from him lends the book a more dramatic edge, the knowledge that at any moment his illness could debilitate him really makes for a protagonist you cheer on and fear for in equal measures. What is real and what is hallucination and how to tell when both seem equally convincing?
What I liked best about Pale Highway is that it takes on a character who has had it all, has taken pride in his mind that won him a Nobel Prize and now is diminished and feels lesser than the people he lives with. This feeling of the loss of talent and the coping with that realisation is truly saddening and his last chance at the redemption of that is to fight this new plague that is truly horrifying.
The book isn’t all doom and gloom though, the other patients peopling the home are at once as lovable as they are infuriating. There are light moments of whimsy and intrigue and overall this pacy read would make a good addition to any book shelf, as not just a good story but also a study of the character traits of one man and perhaps the frustration of a generation.