I’m going to be honest from the get go, The Wilderness was one of the first fictional dementia narratives I read and it remains one of my favourites. This was my third re-read and Samantha Harvey’s precise and evocative prose actually improves with each subsequent read. There’s a lot going on in this novel. It centres around Jake. Jake has Alzheimer’s. Jake is piecing his life together to make a timeline for his memory doctor. As he tries to order the events of the last seventy odd years his ability to maintain the facades he’s built up begins to slip. Jake is a man who’s constructed his sense of self out of evasions and deceptions. As the novel progresses and his dementia develops he finds it harder and harder to recall the truth of who he is, what he’s done and how his life has played out. Jake’s sense of self gradually unravels as Harvey deftly paints a picture of an old man who is more easy to empathise with in his vulnerability and confusion than he has been at any other point in his life.
A cast of women hover around the edges of Jake’s story. His wife, Helen. Joy, the woman he slept with in the early days of his marriage. Eleanor, who has always loved him and now finds herself Jake’s carer, at the end of his life, when he can no longer remember who she is. His mother, Sarah whose presence overshadows his entire existence, colouring his perception of everything. And his young daughter, Alice who died as a child yet reappears to him in adult form as the dementia begins to take hold. All their stories swirl around the novel, repeating, intertwining and fracturing. The reader is offered multiple perspectives and interpretations of the same events and incidents. It’s confusing and at times frustrating. It’s exactly as I imagine an experience of dementia might be and this is why I continually return to The Wilderness as an example of what a dementia narrative could and should be. It’s all consuming. It’s experiential. It drew me in and felt almost like a journey through an actual wilderness and yet it’s also shot through with moments of precise clarity, of incredible beauty and profound pathos. It is, in short, a marvellous book.
The Wilderness was published by Vintage in 2009