Review: The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey

Jake is in his 60s, and has Alzheimer’s.  The Wilderness is told from Jake’s point of view, allowing the reader to experience the devastating progression of his disease.  At first, Jake has trouble finding the right word to describe an object.  It’s a mild inconvenience, but he can still hold it together in public — for example, at his retirement party.  Slowly, he begins to lose his short-term memory, putting objects away in the wrong places and forgetting what he is about to do, or what he has just done.  However, his memories of the distant past are still clear, and he clings to those stories and images as a drowning man would cling to a lifeline.

Jake married a woman named Helen, and together they left London for “the wilderness” of Lincolnshire, Jake’s boyhood home. They had two children, and lived near Jake’s mother Sara and her second husband, an eccentric man named Rook.  Life was not always easy for Jake and Helen:  his career fell slightly short of his dreams, and creating a family was not as easy as they’d hoped.  Sometimes they were there for each other; at other times they each found solace in someone else.  The story of Jake’s past is interspersed with moments from the present, in a kind of mishmash intended to reflect the wilderness his brain has become.  As Jake’s condition deteriorates there are more and more gaps in his short- and long-term memory.  There was one scene in which some especially emotional events take place, and at the end it’s revealed that this was all a dream, embodying many of Jake’s regrets and wishes.

The Wilderness is a sad story, and very well-written, but also quite difficult to read.  I found myself taking it slowly, trying to ease the pain.  I can’t say this was an enjoyable book, but it was definitely worthy of its 2009 Orange Prize nomination.


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10 thoughts on “Review: The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey

  1. I read Still Alice this past year and was blown away by it. It was such an emotional read I don’t know if I’m quite ready for another Alzheimer’s book but this does sound good.

    • I’m not familiar with Still Alice but I just read the Amazon description and can imagine how emotional it was. Guess I feel as you did about The Wilderness: sounds good, think I’ll wait.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I read this book last year, whenI saw it on the Booker longlist, and I did love it. Like you say, it was a difficult read, but, it was incredibly well-written. Some of the symbols and metaphors present are excellent.

    • I’d forgotten this was also on the Booker longlist! I agree with you about symbol, metaphor, and some of the recurring themes, parts of Jake’s history that he could remember again and again, in rich detail.

  3. This was one of my favourite reads of 2009. It affected me emotionally for a long time. I was very surprised that it didn’t make the Booker shortlist as I thought it was one of the best books on the list. I agree that it isn’t enjoyable, but the quality of the writing was outstanding – it really should have won some book prize in 2009.

    • I agree Jackie, it is definitely of prize-winning calibre. The Booker longlist was so strong, it must have been difficult to narrow it down.

  4. I absolutely loved this book: the way that what we see on the page gradually shifts, as Jake’s memory deteriorates, was so striking, and I think Samantha Harvey must have had a lot of re-writing to do to make the story so seamless (with the seams ragged and gaping where they are meant to be as well). For instance, the changing connection with the dog (Lucky, how ironic): earlier on we have the whole story of the event, whereas later in the book, parts of that fall away until there is only the dog and no connecting parts…so many subtle changes with contrasting states at the beginning and end. This was one of my favourites for 2009.

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