When 15-year-old Seth Waller’s mother shows undeniable signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, he realizes how little he knows of his family history. His mother never talked about her childhood, not even her maiden name or the town she lived in. Seth never knew his grandparents, and never met any other relatives. He begins researching the disease, manages to get his hands on information identifying other patients near his Texas hometown, and tries to discover genetic links between these patients and his mother.
Meanwhile, Abel Haggard lives a quiet, solitary life on a farm he has gradually sold off for new real estate development. Now in his 70s, Abel has lost everyone dear to him, including his twin brother and his brother’s wife. Abel’s family has also been touched by early onset Alzheimer’s. Both Seth and Abel bring the reader into their world, to share the pain of living and dealing with Alzheimer’s. Through Seth, you helplessly watch a parent’s condition deteriorate, and you share Seth’s fear of inheriting the condition. Abel knows he was spared, but like Seth he loved someone who left him far too young.
The link between Seth and Abel is revealed to the reader before the characters discover it themselves. This adds an element of suspense or anticipation to the story, and an extra layer of depth and complexity. Stefan Block developed rich, memorable characters and showed particular sensitivity in his portrayal of older people and Alzheimer’s sufferers, making for an impressive debut novel.
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.