When Mark Schluter plunges off a lonely Nebraska road one winter night, it's as though he has fallen off a wooden horse. Critically injured, Mark lies in hospital lapsing in and out of consciousness while his older sister Karin - having left her job in Sioux City to care for him - hovers over his bedside, frantically hoping he'll recover.
This is a time of great uncertainty for Karin as she is thrust into a situation she is least capable of handling. Growing up,
she and Mark were always close after she was left to raise him when it became apparent that their religious mother could do nothing but preach fire and brimstone, and their father was far too reclusive and ineffectual.
Karin still has much invested in the relationship, and she is relieved when Mark gradually begins to respond to treatment. As the days go by, however, it quickly becomes evident that something is terribly wrong. He no longer recognizes Karin as his sister. To him she's an imposter, someone who has been hired and whose intentions are to underhandedly masquerade as his sister.
Karin is told by the doctors that Mark is manifesting a condition called Capgras Syndrome, a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that a close family member or spouse has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.
The shock is almost impossible to fathom for both Karin and her environmentalist ex-boyfriend, Daniel, who works at crane sanctuary near the Platte River. Days later, Mark is still denying her. He assembles everything else: who he
is, where he works, what happened to him, but he continues to insist that Karin is an actress who looks very much like his sister.
In desperation, Karin contacts Gerald Weber, a world famous author and a specialist in brain injuries who lives in New York. Upon hearing of Karin's predicament, he travels all the way to Kearney to meet Mark and tape his sessions. Weber seems to think that Mark has stopped recognizing his sister because some part of him has stopped recognizing himself.
As the mystery of Mark's illness unfolds and the clues to the accident pile up, Gerald, Karin, and even Mark find that tenderness is found in the midst of grief and that hope resurfaces unexpectedly.
Part of the journey for Mark and Karin is the recognition that only time and love can heal some of the wounds of their past.
Gerald's intuition as a neurologist and his precipitous arrival in Nebraska gives him a hamstrung sense that has plagued him throughout his residency. Karin knows she is using her damaged brother to make things right with her own history, and she sees Gerald as unquestionably her only hope
while Mark, who once saw his sister as the voice of reason, now continues to resent this imposter's very presence.
Author Richard Powers writes an intriguing story of the ramifications of this rare syndrome where the "the mind can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven" and how one person's psyche can be broken apart, often at a moment's notice.
In his touching tale, Powers' characters are fully fleshed-out, totally three-dimensional in their fears and worries and hopes and dreams. These are ordinary people forced to confront the almost insurmountable, their lives defined by their cautious striving to reconnect with each other in the face of a
deeply personal and heart-wrenching tragedy.