The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

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The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: This impressive debut novel by Samantha Harvey tracks the progress of a protagonist with Alzheimer's disease. It's a demanding and troubling read but reaps rewards for readers prepared to give it their attention.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099526537

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Apparently, Alzheimer's is the disease people fear the most – more than cancer or heart disease. Without our brains functioning normally, without our memories, we must be nothing – or are we?

Samantha Harvey's debut novel opens with its protagonist, Jake (a former architect now unable to draw a triangle) in a plane on a flight for his 60th birthday – a present from his son. At this stage, Jake's Alzheimer's is already considerably advanced, and his reactions and recollections on the flight set the tone for the rest of the novel. The closing chapter takes place about four years later, on a family outing to London Zoo, when we explore a photograph album and compare the images with Jake's unreliable memories.

Although it was worth it, I did struggle reading this novel. As much as it's Jake's story, it is a more general exploration of the nature and fickleness of memory; Jake's recollections of events in his life are muddied and confused - they contrast with other people's contradictory accounts, notably his exasperated carer, who bereaves him before his death. Did Jake knock over his dog, or was it his friend/carer/lover Eleanor? Did Jake's wife die of a stroke or fall from the cherry tree? Is his daughter pregnant and his son in prison? Why didn't he build his dream house? Was the money for it stolen or given away? The reader does need to concentrate to follow the novel's convoluted path, but the rewards of Harvey's writing are considerable.

I didn't particularly like Jake at first – he seems cold and difficult, though I could just be being prejudiced against his love of concrete and high-rise carbuncles in architecture. His character becomes more sympathetic as his condition deteriorates – I first found myself truly gripped when he gets lost while walking his dog, and has to be brought home by the police, recognising his own vulnerability. The narrative floats between the past and the present, with Jake's visits to his psychiatrist, who charts his Alzheimer's, as linear markers in this trip around and about Jake's deteriorating brain. The final chapters are truly touching – I can't call the outcome uplifting, but it is calm, if very sad. Mind you, I always cry at the bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL the computer regresses to singing a nursery rhyme when his 'brain' is shut down…

This novel certainly gives its readers food for thought; I wondered if Harvey, who shows considerable skill in her writing, could have had Jake's thoughts in the first person, as an unreliable narrator? We are practically inside his head much of the time, and even a little of Jake speaking his inner thoughts for himself would have been interesting. Samantha Harvey was incredibly brave to tackle this difficult subject in her first novel, and with such aplomb, and it will be interesting to see her future output.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For further reading, the novel The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean explores a similar deterioration of the mind, and was much liked by Bookbag's reviewer. For the science behind Alzheimer's and more, Bookbag liked In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R Kandel.

Buy The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey is in the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.
Booklists.jpg The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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