THE WILDERNESS by Samantha Harvey

Book Quote:

“A man is anxious because he has lost too much time and has ended up thinking about all he should have thought about when he had the time.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JUL 18, 2010)

This book unsettled me. Its rendering of a mind descending (drifting? decaying?) into an Alzheimerian abyss is frightening in its deft, almost poetic, description. Indeed, it is disarming in its expanding degrees of what is normal to what is irrevocably and silently lost. If you worry about Alzheimer’s–and who cannot but worry–or have experienced it in your family, the tale told in The Wilderness, the story of Lincolnshire (England) architect Jake Jameson, will stun you. Simply and frighteningly stun you.

Do not be put-off by my comments. This is not a horror show. Rather this the tracing of a gentle clear mountain stream as it winds and falls its way to complete and utter otherness, the wilderness of the ocean where the river is lost forever. This is a meditation on memory and what they–indeed, we ourselves–consist of. If we are the accumulation of experience stored as shards called memories, what do we become as those shards are lost? It is the opposing Proustian, equally philosophical, question. In this instance Jake’s memories move and resist pattern and ultimately are never the same twice. He cannot escape the flow, for this is his world, what he has in fact become. For example, his daughter Alice. She has come to town to visit him with her boyfriend, the poet. At least he thinks it is Alice. He remembers her childhood and how he and his wife struggled to conceive her and one thought leads to another, tumbling. Alice tells him she is pregnant. And then, later, while looking through a photo album with a man he thinks he should know (the reader is not sure either), Jake sees a photo: “In this one there is a child in a white bed, and he recognizes the open, empty features on their way somewhere, but perhaps lost….and he wants to take the series of tubes and machines from the bed so that she can be comfortable.” We learn from an observer: “Oh, dear Alice,” the woman says. ‘She had been in hospital for such a long time, look how tiny she is.” And finally: “This was just a few days before she died.” So who was the pregnant woman who visited him? Or was that just a jumbled memory? Who did that memory belong to? Similarly, their is the fate of his wife, Helen. Did she have a stroke or fall from a ladder? Further, there is a recurring gunshot through the novel, the piercing crack of a round being fired. Was someone shot? Wounded or killed? But it never resolves, like a memory that cannot be pinned down. These threads interweave and the reader cannot see the tapestry from which they are unraveling. Nor can Jake. We are in his world.

There is a masterly technical aspect to this book which unsettles the reader. At times one becomes, like Jake, lost in “the wilderness” that is Jake’s mind. The text becomes the disorienting individual experience. Memories come and go like a breeze through a empty house, from everywhere and from nowhere in particular. You experience this one and then another washes over you. It is a device that puts the reader on the same unsteady footing as the protagonist. My wife read this book before I did. When I finished we compared notes. It was remarkable how we each experienced the book in a different fashion. She held to some narrative, like a snippet of memory, and I dismissed the same snippet to hold another in its place. For instance, there is a woman in the novel, Joy, the daughter of a family friend. We cannot trust Jake’s recollection of what did or did not happen between he and Joy. While I was convinced of one rendering, my wife subscribed to another. And both were correct. Or both wrong. There was no definitive conclusion. If this were music it would suggest two–or more–contrapuntal melodies interweaving but never resolving. Instead the listener is left not knowing, struggling with emptiness. “One must always fight back, not in the hope of winning but just to delay the moment of losing,” thinks Jake, battling the ensuing emptiness. It is a struggle we participate in.

Early on in the novel Jake, going to his retirement celebration, pulls off the road. He “lifts his glasses, and rubes his eyes. He has been doing this journey to and from work every day for thirty-five years. He pores over the map.” We all know the feeling of forgetting for a moment that very thing we think is most secure in our memory. Nothing to worry about, we console ourselves. But like rocks being laid, the weight grows steadily, but grows nonetheless. A few pages later, “he failed to notice…the confusion, the clotting of thoughts, disorientation….” And so the rocks are laid one atop the other, until ever so naturally, a few hundred pages later, Jake is sitting with people he does not know, but thinks he should, looking at a photo album filled with images of people he does not recognize. And then the last sentence: “He grips the hand that has found his, opens his eyes, and walks on.” How did this happen? you ask. How did he get to that place. But you know, because you, the reader, walked along with him from quiet forgetfulness to disorientation, loss of memory, confusion and finally, heartbreakingly, blind resignation.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 27 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; 1 edition (April 6, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Samantha Harvey
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Alzheimer victim:

Lost by Alice Lichtenstein


July 18, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Betty Trask Prize, Contemporary, Debut Novel, End-of-Life, Reading Guide, Unique Narrative

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