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The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

abstract: When I was first given this book the subject matter made my heart skip as I watched my grandmother deteriorate with Alzheimer’s and it could not have been more heartbreaking. She recounted full stories about her childhood, how her school had a netball court that was slanted, how my granddad sent letters when he was in the war which she posted in sequence all over the kitchen. At other times, in contrast, she couldn’t remember who my family was and would shout and scream, when she had previously never in our whole time together raised her voice. Alzheimer’s changes not only your memory but your behaviour and personality, and at times neither one of us recognised the other.

The Wilderness: A Novel (published by Nan A. Talese 2009) throws the reader into a tangled web of memories and emotions as we follow the protagonist into the uncertain depths of Alzheimer’s disease. An architect by trade, Jacob Jameson is a Lincolnshire born, half-Jewish widower in his 60s. We follow him as he delves into the puzzle of his past, trying to decipher fact from fiction.

"In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them."


July 22, 2009
We have made so many leaps in the medical field that when something is deemed incurable it seems impossible to comprehend. Alzheimer’s is progressive and fatal, with as many as 5.3 million Americans living with the disease that destroys your brain cells. It is a frightening statistic. Constant research gives us new techniques and drugs to delay the effects, but so far, there is no cure.

"Under guidance from the fox-haired woman he sketches up a timeline of his life and places major events and people along it. She instructs him to make simple logs such as who he was married to, who his children are, and what his profession was. She escapes his derision with a reasoning hand that slices the air – the gesture says, you’ll thank me for this one day. So he bows his head and says he will do what she asks."

We all know the feeling: those first two seconds of wakefulness when you don’t have any idea where you are and your brain takes a few moments to catch up, leaving you reeling, and then there are the times when you can’t quite grasp a word, or remember a face. That is what I imagine Alzheimer’s to be like, a disorientation that horrifyingly never quite subsides. What is unsettling about this particular disease is that as an aging population, this disease is imminent for a lot of us if no cure is found in time.

The Wilderness is Samantha Harvey’s first non-romance novel. It takes us on a journey inside the brain of an Alzheimer sufferer, into his confusion, his anger, his sadness and despair. Harvey's background in philosophy shines through in her writing. She has both grace and a sensitivity toward the subject matter. Still she shows how unpitying the disease is, stripping people of their dignity building a picture of a family man, intelligent and creative, slowly loosing everything he has gained during life.

"The streets became a jail; he is lost. One street just looks like another, and he finds himself climbing a hill steeper than his legs can manage, so he sits halfway up catching his breath, stroking the poor dog’s head and wondering at what point he became an old man."

The story however does not entirely center around this disease, but allows the reader to join the protagonist on a journey of re-discovery as he tells us disconnected tales from his childhood through to manhood. Dealing with a series of events and people that seem to haunt him, constantly putting together pieces of a puzzle that make up his life.

"It is not that these surfacing memories just come. No, he casts around for them even when not exactly conscious of it; he forces himself into them and wears valleys through them. He plays games trying to connect them and establish a continuity of time."

He evaluates and showcases parts of his relationships with five women who seem completely different from one another. Helen is his wife, and the mother of his two children, Henry and Alice. She's a devout Christian. She seems to be a constant challenge to him as he finds her beliefs hard to understand but none-the-less intriguing, and this mystery draws him to her. Sara, his mother was born in Jewish Austria and survived the war, but will not talk about the events that make her a quiet and guilt ridden person, nor will she give her son the sense of history, religion and home he craves so badly.

"Of course she would not go back, and he did not want her to, but that evening he began to carry with him a frustration, that of a story unfinished. As a child there had always been myths and tales about home, and he had assumed that one day this word home would stop referring to something merely imaginable and begin to be real…"

Joy, his lover, is a free-spirit who moves to America the day after they make love and sends him letters and photos from afar, remembering their secret. Eleanor, is the pitied friend who is there for him in the end, dependable and patient. She writes him a note to tell him she loves him, which he throws onto the fire. These conflicting characters, each so interesting in their own right, are a puzzle for the reader to decipher as Jacob’s mind disintegrates and jumps through time, people and places. This leaves the reader wanting more at each turn to unravel the passion, guilt and loves of Jacob’s life.

"He is the flawed witness to his own past, the ultimate unreliable narrator. Yet in the end we are left with a clear and moving portrait not only of a sympathetic man but also of a heartrending disease as seen from the inside out." [Book Cover]

During the book, one event that sticks out is their decision to move from London back to the place of his childhood, the Lincolnshire Moors, and build his dream house made of glass. The lack of a sense of home might have been one of the reasons he became an architect, so he can construct his own home, his own past to pass on. As he talks about his past architectural projects and the fact that what he has built is now being torn down, we can compare this with the state of his mind, being deconstructed by the disease.

Although at first hard to piece together I suggest sticking with this emotionally charged novel. Harvey approaches the subject of Alzheimer’s with honesty and sensitivity, a subject rarely looked at in so much detail and accuracy. It is a book that brings tears to my eyes when I think of the people this disease has effected, and how frightening the prospect of developing it is.

"He breaks the eggs into a pan and throws the shells away. He then takes the shells from the bin and stands with them in his hand with the idea that he needs them for the omelette – he can’t remember if the shells are like packets that you throw away or apple skins that you eat. Packet or skin, skin or packet? Or box? Or wrapper, or case? There are so many words, and so many actions that depend on words, that it becomes impossible, when one begins to think it through, to ever know what to do."

Additional Links

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