Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2009.
Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel. What is not astonishing is that it has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. And if I might be so bold as to make an outlandish claim based on nothing more than instinct, I rather suspect it might win. Or at least I hope it does.
While not much seems to happen in the book, it is an utterly engrossing story, one that is shocking and melancholic and life-affirming by turn. It has the atmosphere of a spellbinding family drama, with chinks of humour shining through, that someone like Anne Tyler might write. Indeed, it feels like an American book to me, rather than one set in England,although it features some wonderful references to London and the desolate moors of Lincolnshire.
I found it so affecting that I have spent the best part of four days wrestling with this review, and I don’t think I will come anywhere close to explaining what it is about this novel that is so brilliant. Bearing that in mind, let me tell you a little of its content.
The third-person narrative focuses on Jake, a 60-something widower, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We learn that his wife, Helen, 10 years his junior, died from a stroke at the age of 53 and that he is now living with another woman, Eleanor, who is taking care of him. (He occasionally refers to her as “that other woman” because he forgets her name; indeed he often forgets that Helen is dead.) But we never fully learn how that arrangement fell into place, only that the two have known each other for a very long time, have a shared history and that Eleanor waited 30 years to be with him.
Jake has an adult son, Henry, who is in prison, and a daughter, Alice, although it’s never quite clear as to whether she is still alive or died as a youngster.
In fact, this inability for the reader to really know the truth is one of the most interesting aspects of Harvey’s novel. Through a clever repetition of motifs — a yellow dress, a cherry tree, the sound of gun shots, mint juleps, love letters, monkeys, the scars on his grandfather’s face and a bible bound in human skin — and family tales — the story of a missing “e”, which parts of a Battenberg cake you should eat first, a 24-hour dalliance with a young woman, an inheritance that goes missing — the reader begins to see how Jake’s memories are slowly deteriorating as his disease takes hold. Stories shift and change and turn into something else, blurring the line between what is real and what is not.
Suddenly nothing he says or does can be trusted, as if it used to be quite an informal kind of illness and now it becomes official. The timeline is a mass of crossings out and corrections. He feels to be the supremely unconfident author of his own life. Question marks appear against words, then he deletes the question marks, thinking that if he doesn’t question the truth there is no question about it. It is only him, as the woman says, only him who is confusing things.
But this book is as much about architecture as it is about Alzheimer’s. Indeed, Jake, a former architect, refers to the amnesia of his profession on several occasions, and it soon becomes clear that very few of his buildings have been memorable. Ironically, his crowning achievement is a prison extension — a utilitarian monstrosity that caused a public outcry — that now houses his wayward son.
And there’s a bit of politics thrown in for good measure in the form of the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, one of the crystallising moment’s in Jake’s life. He is so affected by the conflict he sets up a pro-Israel lobby group, because as an architect,he has had his own fights over land. But his mother, Sara, an Austrian Jew, does not approve. “You have foolish ideas,” she tells him, before later adding: “These groups, what good arethey? You must leave it alone and save the energy for your family.”
And it is family — Helen, Henry, Alice — which forms the epicentre of his life, and as the memories of them slowly fade and become lost in a fug of confusion the life-affirming nature of this book really hits home: without our memories we have no history, no sense of self, nothing, in fact, to hold onto or to make sense of the world around us.
The Wilderness is an outstanding novel on so many different levels everything I read in its aftermath will seem pithy by comparison. I don’t often re-read books, but I have a feeling that this one may just become an old friend. Indeed it invites a second and third reading to really come to grips with the detail of everything within.