Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Freida McFadden is better-placed than most authors to write about the topic of brain injury, herself being a practicing physician in the field. In her latest medical thriller, Brain Damage, she tells the story of Dr. Charly McKenna, whose idyllic existence shatters in a split second when an assassin fires a bullet through the right side of her skull. Her brain injured and mind shattered, she tries to reconstruct her memories to find the culprit before he can manage to finish the job.
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Freida McFadden Enters the Damaged World
The brain’s indescribable complexity is still leaving us stunned and in the dark about many of its functions; we may have mapped out some areas, their associated functions and the general processes taking place, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Brain trauma is one of the more heavily-studied and mysterious aspects of our human anatomy, and in Brain Damage Freida McFadden takes us into the mind of someone facing the titular struggle following an unfortunate turn of events.
The story begins by introducing us to Dr. Charly McKenna, living in idyllic life she worked extremely hard to attain. From the perfect job to the perfect husband, there doesn’t seem to even be any kind of room for anything to go wrong. And yet, it does in the form of a bullet.
One night, out of nowhere, an assassin makes an attempt on Charly’s life, firing a bullet which tears through the right side of her skull. Miraculously, she survives the attempt on her life, but it has left her severely compromised and damaged both physically and psychologically. In only a single instant, her entire world turned from a pleasant dream into the worst nightmare imaginable.
Her life having fallen into shambles, Charly must learn to adapt to her new lot in life, constantly facing new challenges forcing her to think outside the box. Among other things, she also realizes she has lost the memory of the fateful night which led to her present condition, and begins working as hard as she can to put the pieces of the puzzle back together, if she can even find them in the first place.
Meanwhile, the assassin whose attempt proved surprisingly unsuccessful isn’t about to give up, especially since it might only be a matter of time before Charly remembers and identifies him as the culprit. He already succeeded once, and Charly will have to muster every ounce of intellect and willpower if she hopes to outmanoeuvre him in her diminished state.
The Long Journey to Recovery in Brain Damage
First and foremost, though this novel is indeed classified as a medical thriller, it isn’t quite as fast-paced as most of its peers, nor does it try to keep us hooked with incessant action scenes. On the contrary, this is a slower, more thoughtful type of thriller, one which largely focuses on Charly’s brain injury and the long road to recovery she is forced to travel.
The story is told in first-person perspective from Charly’s point of view (which sometimes changes, depending on the situation), meaning Freida McFadden attempts to give us as clear a view as possible of her damaged internal state. While I would be skeptical of this approach from most other writers, McFadden‘s background as a physician specializing in brain injury puts her in a unique position to convey trustworthy information.
Indeed, we get to learn about every little detail of all the struggles Charly is facing, especially as we go through the rehabilitation course with her, and I must say the author paints a vivid and impactful picture of what it would be like to be in her shoes. While McFadden‘s depiction of brain damage in this book certainly can’t be viewed as scientific evidence, it obviously comes from a lot of firsthand research and experience, making it feel like a credible approximation to me.
This goes a long in way helping us form an empathetic connection with the protagonist, making it quite easy to root for her from the very start. Her journey is a daunting one and it becomes virtually impossible to wish her ill, or even judge her for the failures she consistently endures: after all, who among us could do better in her situation?
Her consistent attempts at reconstructing the memory of the traumatic event are also skillfully integrated into the plot, giving us a take on fragmented memories which, for all intents and purposes, feels very realistic. We share in her frustration and confusion as she only catches glimpses and small pieces, and this brings us to the second driving force behind Brain Damage: the mystery itself.
A Mystery of Missing Pieces
While the exploration of Charly’s mind does take precedence over anything else in this novel, the enigma at the heart of it all is never lost out of sight, subtly (or at times, quite obviously) informing our protagonist’s actions and impacting her decisions. The event is always looming large above her head, and we know the proverbial clock is ticking as the assassin prepares to strike again.
Freida McFadden does an excellent job at creating a mystery out of Charly’s missing memory fragments, always revealing some new and interesting information when more of them are found, and naturally, raising new questions in severe need of answers.
It isn’t a classic mystery in and of itself with all the clues technically already being there, and the main character simply needing to remember them. This structure actually gives McFadden some more room to manoeuvre and decide on when revelations ought to come and how many at a time, a benefit she puts to good use by evenly pacing the story, adeptly weaving the investigation into Charly’s arduous recovery process.
Apart from Charly, there are plenty of other characters in Brain Damage worthy of our attention, and I found they were all written to appear like actual people, rather than simply serve as plot devices. The characterization is profound enough for most of them to make it feel like they exist in this world outside of our protagonist’s story, which in turn gives them a tangible complexity, and with it, a reason to be suspicious of them.
As with any thriller worth its salt, there are some pretty clever plot twists and unexpected turns which stopped me from falling into the dreaded comfort zone where the reader knows what’s coming. While I wouldn’t exactly say they jump out at you from every single corner, their strategic placements in the plot give each and every one an appreciable weight in the story.
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The Final Verdict
Brain Damage by Freida McFadden is a top-notch medical thriller, giving us a captivating mystery wrapped in a profound and realistic exploration of recovering from and living with severe brain damage. If you enjoy your medical thrillers with a good dose of realism and are looking for the type of work capable of both entertaining you and offering a valuable perspective on the topic of brain injury, then I’d say you should definitely give this book a chance.
Freida McFadden is an American author and practicing physician who specializes in the field of brain injury. She has written a number of bestselling psychological and medical thrillers, as well as some more lighthearted and humorous books. Her works include The Perfect Son, The Locked Door, The Wife Upstairs and One by One.