A life recalled through fractured memory

2010-01-27 00:00


The Wilderness

Samantha Harvey

Jonathan Cape

EVERY time I tried to start reading this book, I’d reach the first 20 pages and put the book down again. This is not because the novel isn’t beautifully written. It is. Samantha Harvey has a very perceptive and gentle way with prose. Rather it’s because the protagonist, Jake, is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and the author’s vivid ­descriptions of Jake’s inability to make connections with the most ­ordinary of things in his life felt just a little too frightening.

After many false starts I pressed on. The book deals with the life of Jake, an architect who gives up his good ­career in London to move closer to his ageing mother in the wild English countryside. He takes his new wife, Helen, and their son, Henry, with him to begin a slower-paced life in the country.

The novel is constructed as a series of memories as Jake pieces together his life in lucid moments. He remembers his Jewish mother’s unusual gift to him, a relic of the war, a Bible ­covered with human skin. He keeps the Bible a secret from Helen, one of the few things he manages to keep ­private from her, to try to preserve a place in his life where Helen isn’t omnipresent. He remembers Helen’s premonition about her early death, and then his subsequent dalliance with Eleanor, a girl from his past. He also has to face the irony that his son is incarcerated in the very prison he designed himself.

Harvey recreates the fractured stages of memory loss vividly. Her style has a lyrical simplicity which makes reading her novel a pleasure. The subject matter, however, is not for everyone.

After watching the excellent film Away From Her, and reading The Notebook, I feel I’ve explored the ­nature of Alzheimer’s enough for now. The Wilderness is, however, a very valuable addition to novels written about this topical subject, especially for those who want to know more about what it feels like to lose one’s mind.

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