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The Wilderness Samantha Harvey
I went to here this author speak about her book The Wilderness.
So I went to buy a copy of the book. It is a moving account of a man who was suffering from Alzheimer's. I have had several relations who had suffered from the awful disease Alzheimer's.
This is a fictional account but in parts I could even relate to it with my own expericiences.
The first few pages were hard to get into but after that I found I could not put the book down. The story is about a man called Jake and you read about his thoughts and his life before the illness. It is written as if the man Jake was remembering his past. It always amazes me that one could remember things that happened years ago but the short term memory is affected first... Jake does know that he is starting to be forget but he cannot control these memory loses eventually there will be nothing. Diffulty in doing and remembering the simple everyday things.
The author Samantha manages to write the book in a very moving and touching way and she seemed to have a very good understanding and knowledge on the subject and how a person could be in situations which Jake had got into. By chance and no fault of his own doing. It goes into his relationships with family contacts and friends.
I did find it hard to read in parts but stuck at it and on the whole I enjoyed the book despite the sad topic.
A plot description of 'The Wilderness' really does not do justice to what the book is actually about. On the surface, this is an account of an aging architect, Jake, recalling his life story as it disappears to the clutches of Alzheimer's disease. However, with a very clever narrative style, Harvey has created an emotional and outstanding debut novel.
This stems from using Jake and his failing memories as the centre point of the novel. Although not in the first person, the reader is fed the story through his increasingly fragmented memories. As the novel proceeds, we can see the deterioration of his condition, and the frustration and confusion left in its wake, as Jake recalls memories the reader has already seen countless times, but with them changing slightly every time he does. It is also very rewarding to finally see the stories behind some of the themes like the yellow dress, that are continually mentioned and only explained later and see how they have shaped Jake's life.
This narrative viewpoint makes for a very intense read, as we get to see Jake as a not entirely sympathetic character. By seeing his resentment towards his wife and callousness towards the woman, who has given up everything to be his carer, Harvey adds an element of humanity to the story. After all, who can't identify with the selfish frustrations of a man discovering he can't have it all in life? Whilst he might not be likeable, it certainly makes the reality of Alzheimer's as something anyone could have, hit home.
The main problem with this novel is actually 'getting into it.' Whilst the book is a rewarding read and well worth persisting with for a terrific insight into the terror involved in the progression of this disease, the beginning is best described as a mess. It is really difficult to fathom who characters are and their relation to Jake, with the lack of linearity in the book. Memories appear seemingly at random, which, whilst giving some authenticity to the idea of this as an organic memoir, is a bit of a struggle to keep up with at first.
The prose also feels a little stale to begin with at first. Harvey does use some brilliant turns of phrase and descriptions, which remind me very much of Lionel Shriver. However, at the beginning of the book, it feels like much of the description is forced and slows down the already tedious process of trying to understand exactly what is happening. However, it does develop well and helps add to the hazy, dream-like atmosphere, where it is unsure as to exactly what is real and what is just the product of a dying brain.
Although hardly enjoyable subject matter and an introduction that is a bit of a slog, 'The Wilderness' definitely feels like a very sympathetic account of an awful experience and a brave attempt at tackling very difficult subject matter.
'The Wilderness' by Samantha Harvey is published by Vintage with a RRP of £ 7.99. I bought mine in Waterstones as part of the 3 for 2 offer.
Let's be honest, unless a book has come highly recommended we have to be attracted to it before we will pick it up and read the synopsis. I am as fickle as the next reader and was attracted to the simple yet stylish cover of this book. My copy is white with an illustration of a pink blossom tree. On further inspection there are hidden objects on this cover and it certainly took my attention. The synopsis on the back briefly introduces our main character and the focus of the novel.
Stylish cover; Brief but detailed synopsis; Mental health; Sold!
I hate reading a review that gives the game away so I will only briefly outline the plot. The narrative follows the life of Jake- an older gentleman, retired architect, widower with a lifelong friend acting in his wife's place. Jake is fully aware of his condition and the story follows him as he tried to come to terms with Alzheimer's whilst attempting to mask it from those around him, including family. The story progresses as does his condition and we see a shift in the way he thinks remembers and perceives the world around him, including its people. Jakes thoughts often drift back into his past and we are given an overall account of his life - from childhood with his close bond to his mother, to married life and fatherhood.
That's about all you need to know.
Initially I was a little disappointed with this book. I chose it specifically because it dealt with a mental health issue and to start with it barely addresses Alzheimer's. I spent a couple of weeks coming back to it as it failed to grip my attention. It was flat. The continual skipping back and forth between past and present seemed pointless at times. I was reading a present day chapter not having a clue who was who until I read a few chapters on and was introduced to the characters in a 'past' chapter. I really was struggling to stay interested for a while and even considered throwing it on the 'unfinished' book pile. To Think!
About two thirds of the way through the book began to turn for me. The stories from the past began to match up with the present like a jigsaw fitting into place. It was all becoming clear for me, the reader, alas not for Jake. As the novel began to piece together Jake's disease began to take over and we see him spiralling into the depths of Alzheimer's- the Wilderness.
I really enjoyed the way Harvey handled this. As a person with a professional history in mental health nursing I felt as though Harvey has allowed me a glimpse of the other perspective- that of the patient/sufferer.
Harvey continues to narrate from Jake's perspective but we see the cracks-evidence of word finding difficulties, confusion or time and place, unsure who people are, where people are, are they alive? Suddenly this book turned for me and I couldn't put it down. Again from my professional background I saw signs of deterioration e.g. examinations used. This showed me that the author has either done her research or has a personal experience of the disease. It was fascinating. More than the fantastic account of the disease, the account of the characters was moving. As we follow Jake through this terrible journey we are privy to his changing emotions, through fear, confusion, frustration, anger and finally something resembling inertia, when nothing makes enough sense to fight back.
The novel is at times heartbreaking. We are there with Jake when he is frustrated at people because he doesn't understand. Alongside Jake we see the emotions and commitment of Eleanor. Long-suffering Eleanor, how my heart went out to her! I can say no more on this without giving too much away but let me this, in my opinion women and carers like her deserve sainthood!
In hindsight now I realise that the slow start mimicked the illness itself. It is there but it is hidden, unseen and ignored like a guilty secret. The pace of the book quickens as the illness would. The focus on the illness also shifts from barely there to centre stage. I feel this was intentional to liken the narrative to Alzheimer's itself. Clever Harvey.
In sum, this book is awesome! A definite read for most people. If you are personally struggling with dementia yourself or within your family then consider how you feel before you read the Wilderness. I feel it is so true to life that it could be too emotional for some people.
If recommended to a friend I would say 'stick with it, it's worth it'.