Friday, 3 July 2009
Lost in The Wilderness
I was happy to be lost in The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey for a few days; I took my time there, exploring, even if it was confusing to be lost at times.
I loved this book. I found it subtly heartbreaking. I adored the writing; Samantha Harvey has a wonderful way with words and I lost myself in her beautiful sentences on memory and its loss. The novel is poignant and tragic and incredibly moving. The writing elevates the understated subject matter. Jake, the narrator, is an older man whose mind is rapidly deteriorating from Alzheimer's Disease. Jake barely recognises people; he continually forgets things; he doesn't understand why his childhood friend, "poor Eleanor", is caring for him and why they are sleeping together; he cannot remember why his son, Henry, is in prison; he doesn't know what happened to his daughter, Alice...
The Wilderness does not feature high drama or even have a discernible plot, but it examines Jake's disease through his mind and evokes his confusion, his powerlessness, his helplessness. I think I have already used the word "subtle" but it is true: The Wilderness is on the surface very simple but is such an intelligent novel.
Whilst savouring the language and the meditation upon memory, I was reminded of a few other novels, all of which I have enjoyed in different ways. One of my favourites, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer echoed in The Wilderness, perhaps due to the Eastern-European past of Sara, Jake's mother; I was later reminded of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and its similarly unreliable narrator and what is being intentionally -in Jake's case unintentionally due to his unreliable memory- revealed and concealed to the reader; lastly I remembered my devastation after reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and the fates of its characters ... although The Wilderness is by no means as shocking and shattering, it does leave you with an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
That sums it up, really: The Wilderness is a exceptionally sad novel; not unbearably sad but definitely depressing in the bleakness of the disease and its unrelenting brutality.
The chapters alternate between Jake in the present, ill, and in the Sixties, newly married and a father who has moved from London to his childhood Moors, and focuses on particular memories and formative events in his past. The flashbacks are not linear, can even be confusing for the reader too, as Jake tries to make a timeline and remembers, re-remembers, confuses, forgets, and even reinvents his memories. The events in the present play out almost like a detective novel in the way that Harvey cleverly provides tid-bits of information, and clues, to the way things actually played out; for me, it was an interesting and effective method of writing, albeit difficult to convey in a review.
I found this an exceptional debut novel and a worthy shortlisted contender for the Orange Prize and -all prevailing- a worthy nominee for this year's Booker. It is one of the best novels I have personally read this year and one that will resonate, I am sure, beyond it. I need to extend my thanks to Jackie at FarmlaneBooks for her review; although I was drawn to reading this title, her review convinced me to read it sooner rather than later.
I took note of this passage to share:
There is such pressure to remain true to the facts, and it seems so important somehow, so vital to preserve events and people as they really were. But he knows how memory can make a shattered dream come true. Sometimes he loses the strength and vigilance to stand up to its forces, and thinks he would do just as well to let it transform the past as it wishes.