I have to admit that Samantha Harvey’s debut novel is the perfect example of how reading books at the right time can really make a difference. When I first tried the novel, though I have a real affinity with stories about Alzheimer’s as I spend a weekend every 8 or so weeks with my Great Uncle in his home which is solely for people with that and dementia, I didn’t connect with the book. I think the reason was I was rushing through the Orange long list and I don’t think rushing does any reader any favours, you miss lots of a book just to have more reviews on your blog… a little pointless. I am now much more relaxed… on the whole. Second time around I took to ‘The Wilderness’ so much more and I think its because I paced myself. Now bear with me as this is actually quite a hard book to review.
The Wilderness is narrated by Jake who, when we meet him, is being whirled around the countryside in a plane for his birthday. Jake is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s and on the cusp of retiring is looking back on his life, his loves, his regrets and his unfulfilled hopes. Of course having Alzheimer’s we never quite know at points to whom he is referring or whether what he is saying is reliable or not as his memory deteriorates.
Looking back over his marriage to Helen (who seems to dream the future as she actually predicts her daughter birth and her own death) and the women he had affairs with including Eleanor who he now finds himself sleeping with again, to the relationships with his mother and his children a son Henry who is in prision and a daughter Alice who seems to be slightly removed from the family though once finds out he is ill wants to help. The characters are all very interesting to read I did love ‘poor Eleanor’ who Jake seems to know is hard done by and yet carries on being hard to her, I also loved his mother Sarah and her coldness mixed with motherliness. It is actually Jake as the lead character who is the only well drawn male; all the others seem on the peripheral and don’t quite come fully formed. The cast of women are all incredibly written which I found and interesting mix.
In some places I found myself confused as seeing the world through Jakes eyes you are naturally going to occasionally get lost, and yet this time around I enjoyed being lost in the book. I think the reason that I found it such an effort to read was with a plot and subject like this it can’t be rushed and you may need to re-read the novel in parts once or twice to work out just what Jake is discussing or who. Intermixed with his back history and the deteriation of his memories through his meetings with the nurses Harvey also in a way explains what happens to Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Not many a writer could pull all of this off and the fact that this is Samantha Harvey’s debut novel is in some ways quite astounding. I loved the fact that she also did this without becoming melodramatic. Dramatic things of course happen but they aren’t ever written for effect, they are seemingly factual and matter of fact. The fact she writes a male character so well, though I could never call him likeable (apart from when he finds the dog his girlfriend hit and takes it in as a pet) is another sign of what a promising writer she is and why she has been up for so many awards.
Having the personal and close contact with someone with this disease I think that anyone dealing with it should read it, ok it may be fiction but in terms of the effects of the disease its incredibly real and could give people more of an insight. I would love to know where and how Harvey did her research for she has clearly put a lot into this book. I also liked the fact she made out these people aren’t victims and indeed looked at the rage they feel when approached as such. I look forward to what I think is an incredibly promising start to an incredibly promising author and I am already hoping she is shortlisted though with another seven or so books to go it could all change of course. Have you read this yet and if so what did you think?