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[327] The Wilderness: A Novel – Samantha Harvey

” There is such pressure to remain true to the facts, and it seems so important somehow, so vital to preserve events and people as they really were. But he knows how memory can make a shattered dram come true. Sometimes he loses the strength and vigilance to stand up to its forces, and thinks it would do just as well to let it transform the past as it wishes. ” [5:143]

When Jacob Jameson succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, his life becomes a mystery to himself. While most books about Alzheimer, which tops cancer and heart disease on the anxiety scale, are written from the outside looking in, The Wilderness remains within the ever-narrowing parameters of Jacob’s mind.

Relationships sketch themselves out in his memory—wife, child, children, husband, parent—and form lines that are either snaking towards him or snaking away. [14:358]

A retiring architect in his mid-60s, half Jewish, widower, he finds himself awash in his memories, as he manoeuvers them into stories. As these fragments emerge stroke by stroke, with no coherence, his story acquires a dangerous edge of uncertainty. His effort to sketch up a timeline of his life and place major events and people along it is thwarted by his diminishing mental faculty. What is left are random bits of reflection that oscillate between reality and imagination.

He wishes, more than anything, to not be drawn down by his situation. They say that on balance he is where they would expect him to be, that is, his demise is reassuringly predictable. [4:122]

The reading is tedious—as tedious as the protagonist is stifled. His memories, when treated alone, assert a sense of coherence. Different episodes, concerning his wife, who might have fallen off the ladder, and his mother, who has supposedly survived Holocaust, and his daughter, who has visited and announced pregnancy, don’t necessarily add up. Are they supposed to? Harvey concocts a graceful story, full of surreal dreams and nightmarish imaginings, of someone who fights to grasp the events that truly define his identity. These ever shuffling memories constantly rearrange to form a certain coherence that is not always reliable.

372 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


12 Responses

  1. This looks interesting, especially because most of my “Grand” generation is headed into that stage of their lives. I’m not sure I can read it, being so close to it, right now, though.

    • The baby boomers are getting into the age range in which humans are most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. I enjoyed reading the book but it made me schizophrenic.

  2. Oh no! This was one of my favourite novels of 2009. I found his degeneration very moving and the writing was amazing. I didn’t mind that it was confusing to follow at times as that reflected his life. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it more.

    • Don’t worry Jackie, I still hold this it in high regard because the writing is just gracious and beautiful. I just don’t resonate with the story. Maybe I don’t have the emotional tie to the subject.

  3. Someone that agrees with me at last!

    I counldn’t review this for my blog because I couldn’t even finish it. I found it such a slogg to read but most other reivews (like Jackies above) loved it.

    • It read it very slowly, fearing that I have missed some of the key incidents. Then it realized not all the events are meant to be reliable and coherent. They were just proximity of truth.

  4. The reading is tedious? I wouldn’t make it through.

  5. This book has been on my radar since it made the Orange Prize shortlist, and I’m intrigued by novels about Alzheimer’s. I haven’t seen many reviews, so it’s nice to know not to have my hopes up too high. Thanks.

  6. This one was a “borrow” for me, initially, but then I bought a copy; I thought the way that she worked the narrative from within that experience of loss was overwhelmingly powerful. It felt very authentic to me, disturbingly real…

    • I don’t deny that the writing is very gracious and thoughtful. The overall reading experience, compared to other books I have read to-date, is not the most satisfying.

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