Samantha Harvey, Random House
The wilderness of the title is the labyrinth-like mind of Jacob Jameson, a 60-year-old Alzheimer’s disease sufferer.
Jake’s memories of being a Lincolnshire architect, husband to Helen, son of Sara, father to Henry and Alice, lover to Joy and beloved of his late-in-life companion Eleanor wash through him and shift like sand with tides.
Jake’s not so much lost as shattered. Answers to simple questions elude him. His understandings are ordered and reordered by the new associations his withering brain affords.
I’ve had friends and relatives crippled by dementia yet Jake’s inside story of Alzheimer’s was more comforting than expected; the lull of the narrative soothing despite its shape-shifting unreliability.
Harvey’s writing is accomplished and at times startlingly evocative. But was it a fault or a blessing that I could feel none of the terror that I’ve seen in the eyes of dementia sufferers — especially in the early stages when they know they’re losing their way?
Did I just not care enough about Jake and his significant others? Did it simply not matter to me that his wife might have fallen off a ladder or died from a stroke, that he had a brief affair with a woman called Joy or might not have, that his mother gave him an inheritance that he put under the bed and which might or might not have been stolen?
How much of anyone’s memory is an amalgam of what really happened and what they wished had?
Jake’s wife Helen has a Christian conviction and her Bible group involvement is a source of some tension. Jake’s mother, Sara, is Jewish and a wartime refugee to England. At one point Jake has a Zionist zeal which his mother doesn’t share but which he later believes contributed to ending Israel’s Six-Day War.
Jake’s interior monologue includes him saying he’s angry, confused and feels like he’s to blame — but ultimately I couldn’t feel it. But perhaps that was part of the point. As in: Human feelings are fleeting. Life is like a grain of sand. What meaning a person weaves can so easily dissolve. Rage waxes and wanes. Life’s end can be bewildering, un-chartable and out of control. This is often no-one’s fault and can’t be changed.
There’s bleak beauty in wilderness which Harvey has described well. Not so, however, the terrors of being lost in the maze.