Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

Jake is a widower and a retired architect living in Lincolnshire. He has Alzheimers, so we can't actually be sure that he's a widower, or otherwise bereaved. In The Wilderness, we encounter Jake as an impermanent glue that holds fragments of story together, and we encounter his family and loved ones through these fragments.

The Wilderness gives an impression of Alzheimers as a no-man's land: a place where there is a forever sliding scale between fiction and fact, a scale that pitches dramatically from this side to that; a place where black holes appear from nowhere, swallowing details - swallowing people and inventing others, throwing holes into the middle of stories, and shifting the order of things; it's a place where chronolgy and relations become fluid and changeable.

The Wilderness was mesmorising and frustrating in equal measure. Jake reports significants events and relates people through a series of 'reminiscences', though the same people and events keep appearing in different guises. The characters, that give the impression of being well rounded, become flattened and two dimensional in their portrayal as recurring motifs. The notion of boiling something down to its essence is played with very successfully, and Jake lays out his life as in a family album - select images, with fragments of story attached - something that we all know changes with perspective and age.

To avoid sentimentalising the disease is a remarkable achievement, and the result is a stunningly visual but cold book. It does ask a really interesting question about our emotional response to Alzheimers, and that is how can one grieve for something they don't know they have lost? Though I don't think The Wilderness is a classic, I do find the effect or recurring motifs haunting - and I can't forget Jake's daughter saying about the cherries: 'Jape, I want to pick them, Jape'.

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