Last 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.