Virginia Woolf once commented that it seemed strange that so dramatic and universal an experience as illness isn’t the subject of more novels. There are exceptions — the tubercular residents of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” the patients on Solzhenitsin’s “Cancer Ward” — but, especially in recent years, characters with medical conditions are more likely to be found in memoirs than in fiction.
Before writing her debut novel, “Piece of Mind,” Michelle Adelman briefly considered writing a memoir about traumatic brain injury. Adelman based the novel’s narrator, a 27-year-old woman named Lucy who sustained a traumatic brain injury when she was 3, on her older sister, Caren, who had a similar injury in childhood. “She was the most unique character I knew,” Adelman said of her sister in a phone interview from her home in San Mateo, Calif. “I didn’t know anyone else like her. But I wanted to go beyond her own life and tell a different kind of story.”
Adelman, who first conceived “Piece of Mind” while an MFA student at Columbia, researched traumatic brain injury extensively in order to create a character outside her own experience. “I also read a lot of Oliver Sacks to try to understand the different facets of the brain. It was comforting —
Lucy’s neurologic condition impairs her ability to work, or live independently. When her father, her main caregiver, dies suddenly, Lucy moves in with her college-age younger brother. The siblings must, in effect, parent each other. “Piece of Mind” is as much about the bond between siblings as about traumatic brain injury. “The central love story of this book is the complex relationship siblings have, the deep connection they have. No other relationship really compares,” Adelman said.
Like Adelman’s sister, Caren, Lucy has talents as well as challenges. One gift they share: They are both skilled artists. When Adelman decided to illustrate her novel with her narrator’s drawings, she considered using her own artwork —