The Wilderness

thewildernessLast year, I spent much of the late summer and early fall reading any of the books on the Booker long list that I could easily get my hands on. Even though I enjoyed the experience, I had no intention of attempting to read the Booker long list this year—until I saw the list itself. Unlike last year, when most of the titles and authors were wholly unfamiliar to me, this year’s list featured books that were already on my TBR list (Children’s Book, Brooklyn, and Wolf Hall) and books by several authors whose work I’ve been meaning to try (Sarah Waters, J.M. Coetzee, and Sarah Hall). So I can’t resist. My plan is to alternate Booker selections with non-Bookers, and I’ll just see how far I get.

My first Booker selection is The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey. I was actually only moderately interested in this book, but it was available at the library right away, so it seemed a good place to start. And for this book alone, I’m glad that I decided to read the Bookers this year.

Jake, the main character in The Wilderness, is an architect getting ready to retire. His family members have died or are otherwise distant from him, and he has Alzheimer’s. As the book begins, his memories are already starting to melt together, and as the book goes on, his understanding of both the present and the past continues to fade.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Alzheimer’s as a subject of fiction. I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any experience with the disease, but I was worried that a book about it would be overly maudlin. However, by adhering closely to Jake’s own perspective, Harvey avoids the maudlin and keeps the reader slightly off-kilter. The focus is not on the tragedy of memory loss and the havoc it wreaks, but on the actual experience, which, from the inside, doesn’t always look so bad, as Jake muses early on in the book:

He is giddy with the sensation that nothing, nothing, not even himself is certain. And then he begins to wonder if perhaps this is a godsend, and that he can protect himself by filling in the gaps with what he would prefer as opposed to what was.

I’m fascinated by the workings of the human memory and how easy it is for us to manufacture memories of things that never happened. As an architect, Jake is accustomed to creating a physical world; now he can create a new world in his own mind. In the book, we see Jake’s past from his own point of view. He looks back over his life, his marriage, his children, but it’s never clear what is true. Certain motifs are constant—a cherry tree, a yellow dress, a packet of letters, a Bible, a gunshot—but their true meaning is unclear. It’s only when friends and family members speak up that Jake—or the reader—is forced to look the truth in the face. And these looks are never entirely illuminating.

I don’t wish to give the impression that Harvey takes a romantic view of Alzheimer’s, spinning it into a lovely escape from reality. She doesn’t. There are moments of genuine fear and of humiliation, but most of these are associated with the business of day-to-day life, not with the memories of the distant past. It’s also clear that Jake’s memory loss is painful for those around him because they themselves become obliterated from his consciousness. What less clear is what it means to Jake to lose the past. I can’t speak with any knowledge of what Alzheimer’s itself is like and whether Harvey accurately depicts the experience, but as a meditation on the malleability of our personal histories, The Wilderness is a great success.

See other reivews at Eve’ s Alexandria, Farm Lane Books, KevinfromCanada, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Paperback Reader, Reading Matters.

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9 Responses to The Wilderness

  1. Claire says:

    Thank you for the link.

    I enjoyed this review and love your mention of the recurring motifs.

    The longlist has some very appealing books on it this year but it is the lesser publicised titles, like Heliopolis, The Quickening Maze and How to Paint a Dead Man, that I am enjoying and/or looking forward to most.

  2. robotbooks says:

    I “unintentionally” started with the long list myself and after reading Brooklyn and The Little Stranger I began questioning why I was even bothering… And then I picked up The Wilderness and, like you, simply from the dust jacket I really had no great interest in reading it. I’m currently half way through and I’m loving it! It’s peculiar describing it to fellow readers as I’m reading it because any too brief description does make it sound “maudlin,” but Wilderness is by no means a book that just toys with your sympathies and expects to get away with it. In addition to everything you’ve said, I’ve been finding the book genuinely hysterical at parts and I really love the character Rook.

    Good luck with the list!

  3. Wilderness is one of my favourites of 2009 and I am really hoping it wins the Booker prize this year. Good luck reading the rest of the list – there are some real gems in there!

  4. savidgereads says:

    I am just re-reading this at the moment as for the Orange-a-thon I didn’t really gel too well with it. This time its completely enthralled me and I think its wonderfully wonderfully written. Great post!

  5. Nymeth says:

    I’ve heard great things about this book, but like you I’ve been hesitant because I don’t know how I feel about Alzheimer’s as a topic for fiction. It’s not that I think that there’s anything that isn’t appropriate for fiction, but I just wonder how I’d feel about it as a reader. Your review, and the comments about how it doesn’t merely play with our sympathies, makes me want to give it a try.

  6. Steph says:

    I have only heard great things about this book, so I think that even though the basic synopsis is not really one that would normally hook me this is one that I will try in the future. I’m glad to hear that the Alzheimer issue is treated with respect and the appropriate gravity without venturing into maudlin. I think if done right, which this sounds to be, it could make for a really affecting and thoughtful exploration about memory.

  7. Teresa says:

    Claire: How to Paint a Dead Man is one I’m really looking forward to, but, alas, I don’t think I’ll be able to get my hands on Heliopolis (The Book Depository let me down and cancelled my order on that one.)

    robotbooks: Yes, this really isn’t a book about how sad Alzheimer’s is, although that’s a piece of it. The Alzheimer’s really seems more like a vehicle for exploring the theme of memory.

    Jackie: Since this is the only long-lister I’ve read, I don’t know if I’ll end up supporting it for the final prize, but it’s every bit as good as some past winners.

    savidgereads: Interesting that it’s better the second time. Sometimes timing and mood is everything. I’m glad it’s working for you now.

    Nymeth: I agree that topics like Alzheimer’s shouldn’t be off-limits, but it’s one of those topics that has limited appeal for me–mostly because I couldn’t imagine an author handling it in an interesting way, but Harvey does it.

    Steph: For me, this really is as much a story about memory as about Alzheimer’s, and memory is a fascinating topic.

  8. Ann says:

    This is waiting for me at the library to pick up this morning. I’d already read ‘Wolf Hall’, The Children’s Book’ and ‘Brooklyn’ before the long list came out and to be honest it will take a great book to top those three for me, but maybe this is that book. thanks for coming over to Table Talk. I will be a regular visitor here from now on.

  9. Teresa says:

    Ann: I’m reading Brooklyn now and it is wonderful. This is wonderful in a different way, mostly because of the unconventional narrative style. I’ll look forward to seeing what you think.

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