This is my review of The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey.
The beauty and perceptiveness of the writing gives an insight – insofar as I can judge- into the troubling topic of Alzheimer's, without filling the reader with a grim depression. It is impressive that a young woman can enter into the fragmenting mind of a much older man. Although the story lacks a strong plot as such – it is largely a series of memories and reflections looking back over a lifetime – my interest was held by the way in which information leaks out, with some "key" points not becoming "clear" until the final pages. The most compelling aspect of the book is its conveyance of the false nature of memory, in particular when the mind becomes clouded. The same incident or snatch of converstation is often described several times in different contexts, leaving a sense of confusion as to what has really occurred. Related to this is the way in which a small image – a recurring memory of a peg – can assume more importance thatn a major life-changing event. Then there are the frequent effective descriptions of the destructive effect of the endless confusion in Jake's life – contantly distracted during his attempts to make coffee, he eventually boils the coffee-maker dry.
Many of the descriptions are striking and memorable: the stark beauty of the moors, the evocation of Sara's Jewish culture, Jake's meeting with his adult daughter Alice when he steels himself to admit his Alzheimer's to her, only for us to be shown that the whole elaborate event is a probable figment of his imagination. Many scenes from the past have a dreamlike quality – their plausiblity or otherwise ceases to matter, yet they are deeply significant for our understanding of Jake's life and his condition.
Many of the dialogues are interesting and humorous, weaving in comments on such weighty themes as religion, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and architecture without becoming sententious. Some of the real love and affection between the main characters – despite any infidelity- is portrayed well. Several themes are interwoven – the book is not just about Alzheimer's but about how people can love each other despite holding very different opinions, about the pain of unrequited love (Eleanor's) and the loneliness of living in an alien culture (Sara's). There is a good deal of wry humour – as in Jake's regular meetings with the coolly professional fox-haired woman doctor, in which he fails to pass her basic tests of his faculties, whilst maintaining an inner stream of complex, albeit twisted perception and logic.
My main reservation is that some of the characters are insufficiently developed and therefore not wholly convincing – the flamboyant Rook and his granddaughter Joy, also Henry as an adult. This is a pity as they clearly have the potential to come alive in our minds as well as Jake, his wife Helen and to some extent the long-suffering Eleanor. Also, although it is probably justified to show Jake's final disintegration, the final pages seem superfluous apart from "tying up a few loose ends" in a story that is all about loose ends.
At the beginning, I wondered whether it would have been better to let the reader deduce the nature of Jake's problem from his erratic behaviour. I felt at times that I had "got the point" and my interest waned – perhaps I was simply tired by the amount of mental energy this book requires. However, whenever I returned to it, I was impressed again by the sheer quality of the writing. This book merits being read quite slowly – or reread to absorb the imagery and dense mesh of ideas which the writer has woven in.