Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness is another of the books my boss has given me to read. It was Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009, the year that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won. 2009 was a good year for the Man Booker, at least it was a year of books that interested me: I own and/or have read six of the thirteen books that were nominated that year. I mention this tidbit of information because the winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize will be announced on October 16th, and I’m interested to see which of the Shortlisted novels wins. In case you didn’t know, the Man Booker Prize is awarded annually to what the judges determine to be the best novel of the year “written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.” It’s sort of like the Pulitzer Prize for the rest of the English-speaking world.
I guess you probably wanted to read about this book, right? And not get an explanation of a literary prize? Okay, fine. But in my defense, this book tends to go off topic not infrequently. That’s what happens when your protagonist and third person limited narrator is succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Jake Jameson is an architect, husband, and father of two, who has recently (maybe) retired from his job. His wife has recently (maybe) passed away while picking cherries from a tree in their back yard (possibly); his son is in jail (definitely) for reasons unknown/unmentioned; and his daughter is off somewhere doing something (probably not). This was probably the most unreliable narrator/point of view I’ve experienced in years. And I just read a book that was partially narrated by a resident in an insane asylum. Definitely Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture had the facts down better than this guy.
The Wilderness has two sets of chapters; there’s a numbered set and a set with names and no numbers. The numbered set chronicles Jake’s mental deterioration in the present day. The named chapters seem to be the stories of events as they actually happened prior to the beginning of Jake’s disease, though there’s some question in my mind how reliable these memories actually are, because some things keep reappearing; the gunshot in the forest, Jake’s mother Sara’s chipped tea cups, and a packet of letters are just a few. Granted, these things could for sure make multiple appearances in a person’s life. But I kept getting the impression as I went along that snippets of the stories were being combined into new stories and maybe it was all just a big jumble in Jake’s mind. I would love to go through and highlight quotes for you guys but it’s a difficult book to delve into without just starting over from the beginning. In fact, this would be a book I would consider rereading multiple times. In a way it reminds me of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from elementary school, because events keep getting recombined into new and different stories throughout the book.
Harvey does an amazing job of describing her impression of how the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s slowly fragments and their memories become smaller and smaller pieces. She either did a ton of research on the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s and talked to lots of people with Alzheimer’s, people who know people with Alzheimer’s, or she has a really good imagination. Probably a combination of the above, I’d guess.
I really felt for Jake; I could feel his rising frustration and then see how he is finally and irretrievably lost. The character seems to find peace in forgetting about his past but not necessarily in living in the present that way. He seems to always be on the brink of remembering something and that doesn’t make for a peaceful person.
The character in the novel who is present and alive throughout is Eleanor, or Ellie. She is several years older than Jake, and they grew up together on the Moors. She loves him for what sounds like her whole life, but he is always too busy or married. At some point after Jake’s wife Helen dies, he and Eleanor finally do get together. And then he forgets who she is. At one point, after he has forgotten her name, she something to him along the lines of “Jake, I’ve waited all this time to get you and now you’re gone.” I can’t find the actual page it was on (This is the problem with borrowing books from people. Can’t mark things.), but this is close to what she said. Eventually she puts him in a home, and says it’s just for two days, but at that point, Jake has no idea when one day stops and another starts. So we don’t know how long he is there, either. Eleanor is the most sympathetic character in the novel. She cares for her lifelong friend who has become her lover, at a time when the benefits of the relationship are rapidly diminishing. She stays when Jake forgets her name. She doesn’t give up until he puts his clothes in the oven and almost sets the house on fire. And maybe even then she doesn’t give up—because as far as we know, he only stays in the care facility for two days. Jake is kind of unlikeable in his earlier life. He is pushy and difficult. He cheats on his wife and carries on an emotional affair via letter with the woman for years. Without a doubt, he is sympathetic in his debilitated state, but is sometimes mean to Eleanor. He accuses her of stealing money from under the bed (this is an event that really happened to him and Helen, but years and years prior); he is awful to her at the end. I know this is something that Alzheimer’s patients do. They take their frustration out on those closest to them. I didn’t like it, because Eleanor is kind and good. I hope she finds happiness someday.
I was annoyed a bit that I never got all the answers to Jake’s story that I wanted: why was Henry in jail? What happened to Alice? How did he and Eleanor get together? Did Jake and Helen ever get their money back after it was stolen? What was the deal with the gunshots? But because this is post-modern fiction (or post-post modern, or whatever genre books like this fit into) some questions are not meant to be answered for us; the best we as readers can do is to think and talk about the book and come to our own conclusions. I respect that books like this exist, without a doubt. Readers deserve thought-provoking fiction that isn’t easy. It’s good for us. But sometimes what’s good for us isn’t always easy. And this book was not easy. Well, let me clarify. It was easy to read—the prose was spare but beautiful. Harvey made me want to see the English moors even more than Wuthering Heights did. What was difficult was everything I’ve already mentioned. I definitely recommend this book for all of the reasons above. But just know it’s going to stick with you for a while; you’re going to think about Jake and Helen and Eleanor and all the others. You may even want to reread it right away. I have book deadlines and am not at liberty to reread books for the time being, but this is definitely one I would like to revisit. And I will definitely keep my eye out for more by Samantha Harvey. This was her first book, if you can believe that. I expect we’ll be seeing more from her on the awards circuit.