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Scar Tissue [Paperback]

Michael Ignatieff
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

July 27 1993
A report from that other country called illness. At its heart is a son's memoir of his mother's voyage into the world of neurological disease, where she first loses her memory, and then her very identity, only to gain - at the very end - a strange serenity. By the author of "The Russian Album".

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From Publishers Weekly

This searching, poignant account of a woman's descent into Alzheimer's disease and her son's debilitating existential fear and guilt is a cri de coeur that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. While the subject has been treated before, Ignatieff ( Aysa ) brings to it highly honed powers of observation and a philosophic turn of mind. The title refers to "the dark starbursts of scar tissue" that indicate a brain being destroyed. Haunted by the genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's in his mother's family, the narrator describes each harrowing stage of her illness, meanwhile speculating about the loss of selfhood when language and memory are obliterated. There is irony in his insight that "we have just enough knowledge to know our fate but not enough to do anything to avert it." The ramifications of the mother's decline destroy the family: the narrator ascribes his father's fatal heart attack, the demise of his own marriage, a break with his brother and his months of crippling depression as inescapable consequences. At times, one becomes impatient with the narrator's self-destructive behavior, his utter despair and his emotional estrangement from his wife and children. Though the prose is carefully restrained, as the book reaches its climax there is a tinge of melodrama and excess that does, however, accurately convey the narrator's conviction that he cannot escape his mother's fate.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In this fictionalized account of a mother's death from Alzheimer's disease told from the perspective of a son, Ignatieff (Asya, LJ 9/15/91) examines the relationships between life, consciousness, disease, and death. Father was a Russian emigre and soil chemist, Mother was a painter with a family history of the disease, and their two sons have grown up to become a neurological researcher and a philosophy professor. It is the philosopher who tells the story, dipping into childhood memories as he recounts embarrassing and excrutiating details of his mother's decline and death. The philosopher probes unceasingly to comprehend his mother's degree of understanding as her memory and sense of self shrink, admiring the abstract beauty of the brain scan that the neurologist dispassionately interprets. And it is the philosopher who finds the seeds of the same disease inside himself. This novel is both beautiful in its quiet celebration of each moment of life and almost unbearable in its exploration of questions most often unasked. This awesome piece of work should be in most collections.
--Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty. P.L., Va.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Way of All Minds Jan. 31 2005
Format:Paperback
Although Michael Ignatieff is primarily known as a writer of intelligent books of accessible political theory, his short novel, "Scar Tissue," published more than a decade ago, is a beautifully observed, emotionally precise account of the fraying of minds, flesh, and relationships. It's one the earliest of several good books about the loss of a parent through Alzheimer's disease -- Ignatieff's novel is comparable to John Bayley's memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch -- but it's more than that. Ignatieff's fiction-maybe-memoir (it has an intensely autobiographical feel) also presents an unsentimental, even merciless, portrait of the book's narrator and his relations with parents, spouse, and others. Again and again, I was struck, and moved by, the psychological accuracy of the book, and the writer's courage in facing up to not only a lot of the "big questions," but to the cost of one's own self-deceptions.
Scar Tissue got a modicum of attention when it first appeared, but I've long had the sense that it deserves many more readers. In addition to all else, I'd put it on any list of "Best Canadian Novels" of the last 15 years.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The heartbreaking loss of an aging parent Nov. 15 1998
By Rick Hunter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Michael Ignatieff's 1994 novel Scar Tissue is the story of two brothers, one a neurologist and the other a philosophy professor, coming to grips with their aged mother's descent into a wasting neurological disorder (Alzheimers?). Neither philosophy or science are able to make sense of the illness, and the question ultimately becomes how the narrator and his brother are to carry on in the face of the inexplicable. This is a sensitive story, finely told.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Way of All Minds Jan. 31 2005
By Stan Persky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although Michael Ignatieff is primarily known as a writer of intelligent books of accessible political theory, his short novel, "Scar Tissue," published more than a decade ago, is a beautifully observed, emotionally precise account of the fraying of minds, flesh, and relationships. It's one the earliest of several good books about the loss of a parent through Alzheimer's disease -- Ignatieff's novel is comparable to John Bayley's memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch -- but it's more than that. Ignatieff's fiction-maybe-memoir (it has an intensely autobiographical feel) also presents an unsentimental, even merciless, portrait of the book's narrator and his relations with parents, spouse, and others. Again and again, I was struck, and moved by, the psychological accuracy of the book, and the writer's courage in facing up to not only a lot of the "big questions," but to the cost of one's own self-deceptions.
Scar Tissue got a modicum of attention when it first appeared, but I've long had the sense that it deserves many more readers. In addition to all else, I'd put it on any list of "Best Canadian Novels" of the last 15 years.
5.0 out of 5 stars The novel as memoir: a clearly and intelligently written family breakdown story Aug. 21 2006
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is from page one, a clearly and beautifully written work. It is a novel, and for all I know there is much 'fictional' in it, but I read it as a memoir. It is ostensibly the story of the narrator's mother's mental breakdown, her deterioration in a form of Alzheimer. i.e. the work ostensibly centers on the 'mother' her life, her story, what happens to her mind. But it is much more than that . It is a family, or two family stories, and both of breakdown.

The principal story is of family the narrator grew up in. The secondary story is of his own family, his wife and children. The connection is not made so directly, but clearly the breakdown of one family, the illness of the mother and the son narrator's intense devotion to her, lead to the breakdown of the second family, his leaving his wife and two children.

The book also tells the story of two other major characters, the narrator's father and brother. The father a Russian immigrant to America , and the lesser loved parent dies in the course of the mother's illness. The presentation of the lives of the parents, and the relations between them is done in a strong and convincing way. Here again the writer blends present experience and memory in a most effective way.

Also the story of the two brothers is important in relating to a fundamental philosophical theme of the work ie the true meaning of self and identity. The physician brother provides hard scientific insight which of course does not solve the mystery of the mother's mental deterioration, but provides nonetheless a path for understanding it.

The book again is written clearly and is a fluent and gripping read.

My reservations are a bit on the ethical side. The son's seeming lack of attention to his own children in his obsessive care for his mother is to my mind a major fault. Despite the authenticity of the relationships depicted I found myself a bit reserved in feeling , perhaps at my own failure to deeply like , or sympathize with the suffering parents, main characters.

Yet I think my reservations are unimportant here. This book is especially strong in depicting the complexity of family relations, the painful difficulties of real familial relationships.

It too, when it comes down to it, seems to me to succeed as a kind of 'love story' as one in which the narrator- son does display a tremendous devotion and love to his mother.

A humane and again beautifully written book. Very highly recommended.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a beautiful and brave novel Nov. 20 2004
By Melanie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Michael Ignatieff's novel is written from the perspective of a son who has a mother with a family with a history of dementia. The title reflects the fact that scan of the brain shows scar tissue, and this is how her condition is first diagnoised. The son, the protagonist, is a philosophy professor who has successfully started a life of his own, complete with a very satisfying career and a family of his own. The novel captures the story of his mother, father, and his brother and their experiences in dealing with the mother's diagnosis of premature senile dementia and the progression of her condition.

This book won the MIND Book of the Year: Allen Lane Award (an annual UK award given to a Fiction/Nonfiction book about mental health) and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. The writing is astounding, and as a result I was unprepared for the author's ability to describe the emotional journey of the protagonist. I found myself haunted by the themes and subject matter in the same way that someone passing by a car wreck can't help but stop to stare.

Ignatieff examines what dementia does to the identity of the sufferer and he references the de Kooning, the famous American painter who developed Alzheimer's disease and yet continued to paint. He also examines what dementia does to his own identity, as he find himself trying to figure out who he is when his own mother no longer recognizes him as her son.

This book is a great achievement and will especially appeal to those readers who are seeking a book about illness and the philosophies related to illness and identity.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A complex tale of illness and death Dec 26 2001
By Philippe Vandenbroeck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"I could call this the history of my family as the history of our characteristic illness. I could also call it the history of an illness as the history of one family", says Michael Ignatieff at the outset of his novel Scar Tissue. Although the author has built himself a reputation as a scholarly historian, biographer and culture chronicler, this book is by no means a vapid academic exercise. To the contrary, in barely 200 pages the author paints a very personal and infernal journey to the extremities of human life.
The book can be read in different ways. First it is a detailed account of the dynamics of a particular pathology. The narrator describes step by step how his mother is overpowered by a mysterious illness and how it gradually dismantles her personality. Here, Ignatieff's prose can be very moving. The description of his youth is suffused with a fragile, arcadian light, contrasting effectively with the searching, melancholy figures of father and mother. The dramatic clair-obscur is tastefully woven into the fabric of the whole novel and lends a poetic tension to the work.
Additionally, the confrontation with a devastating neurological illness forms the basis for a compelling philosophical investigation. In this sense, the book draws the contours of a few classical questions in personality theory. What is a person? When has someone reached the point of psychic regression where the 'I' has been dissolved? Can human identity be reduced to a particular neurochemical balance, or is there more than only organic substance? In Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff explicitly confronts two distinct philosophical positions - materialism and idealism - with the mystery of life and death. The narrator, philosopher, and his brother, neurophysiologist, are proxy for these two different types of rationality: "As my father used to say, 'Your brother has a propositional intelligence.' Meaning he had a way of reasoning that viewed ordinary life and its problems from an altitude of 40,000 feet. Whereas, my father said, I had 'an autobiographical intelligence', which was his way of saying I had a scatty female mind, interested in gossip and personal details and stories and character, things he didn't have time for.' So, a Platonic, conceptual and scientific way of thinking and an Aristotelian, pragmatic and context-sensitive rationality are crushing their teeth on the abyssmal problem of fate and death. Maybe, at the end of the story, we are witness to some sort of synthesis: "Human identity is neurochemical. Infinitely small amounts of neurotransmitter fluid, microscopic levels of electrical charge make the difference between selfhood and loss. Sanity is finely poised. Fate is measured in pica-litres. On the other hand, fate is beautiful. Feel the slow beating descent of its black wings.'
The book's finale may seem a little contrived: pushed completely out of his existential balance, the narrator undertakes a radical quest for selflessness, an intentional destruction of his own person, into a state of pure emptiness. However, it seems to me this is another level at which Scar Tissue can be read: ultimately, in its appeal to the symbolism of death and rebirth, the story develops a logic akin to an initiation rite. Ignatieff's state of pure vacancy and selflessness corresponds to the embryonic condition, a prerequisite for each regeneration (Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane is useful background reading here). On the final page, the author prepares for the final part of the journey: "But I know that there is a life beyond this death, a time beyond this time. I know that at the very last moment, when everything I ever knew has been effaced from my mind, when pure vacancy has taken possession of me, then light of the purest whiteness will stream in through my eyes into the radiant and empty plain of my mind." And then back to the magnificent motto from the hand of John Milton:
"So by this infirmity may I be perfected, by this completed. So in this darkness, may I be clothed in light."
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