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Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

It could be a question for a Stage 1 philosophy tutorial: what happens when a juggler, whose life, family, stability relies on their deft handling of innumerable balls, loses awareness of the existence of the entire left side of her body?

The audacious premise of Lisa Genova’s subtle Left Neglected rests on a condition known as Left Neglect, a neurological syndrome that occurs due to damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. The damage can be caused by stroke, haemorrhage, or traumatic brain injury, and it is the latter that is experience by Sarah Nickerson, a mother of three with a demanding corporate career whose use of a cellphone while driving in heavy rain up-ends her life.

Genova deftly builds towards the catastrophic moment with punchy chapters that capture the frenzy of Sarah’s life. If you didn’t know better – the blurb sets it up – you’d assume she was in for a collision with a classic case of burnout. As the vice-president of human resources at a fictitious consulting firm operating in 40 countries, she is ambitious to the point of lunacy, setting her sights on a promotion to president within two years.

Every minute of the day is scheduled, and in many minutes she is required to do two or even three things at once. She prides herself on her mastery of time, even as she contemplates the sensation of a split personality and is plagued by dreams of losing pieces of her own body. She loves her husband and children, but they are scheduled in too, she has no choice: among the mountainous financial obligations are mortgages on two homes.

The irony, as Genova presents it, is that it is only when Sarah is forced to stop that her life might truly begin. The scenario is almost comical: waking up in hospital eight days after the accident, she hears her husband’s voice but cannot see him. It is not until he moves from the chair on her left that he enters her field of vision. Sarah is amused rather than horrified – she is not capable yet of realizing that she has lost awareness of her left side, because her brain doesn’t register that ‘left’ even exists. Items on the left side of her dinner tray are invisible to her; she doesn’t know she possesses a left arm or leg. When she tries to read, the text on the left side of a page registers as blank whiteness.

It is when the full meaning of Left Neglect hits home that Sarah starts to grapple with what her new, unplugged life might look like, and it’s nothing from which she can Blackberry her way out. What could be mawkish is handled by Genova with a sharp, keen eye for the human response to loss – Sarah experiences denial, anger, every step in the process of grieving as she works to discover how much of her old life can be reclaimed, and precisely what it is she wants back.

Passages describing her rehabilitation reveal both the extraordinary implications of such an injury and the pains Genova has taken to portray the experience of living with Left Neglect. The frustration of relearning to walk, toilet oneself, control a traumatized body’s tics and tremors is conveyed with understated power. It’s an impressive journey by both women.

Previously reviewed on

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

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