Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness


I almost bought this book two months back, but, for some unexplainable reason, I didn’t. About a week back, I found the first edition signed hardback in a second-hand bookstore, and literally jumped with glee. Saying buying this for £2.50 is a bargain is an understatement of sorts.

The Wilderness follows the story of Jake, as he slowly loses his mind to Alzheimer’s – slowly, or fast, depending on your definition of ‘time’, something Jake has no concept of. The book starts with him taking a plane ride, a present, which he clearly doesn’t want. However, at the very outset, this plane ride allows the reader to glimpse into Jake’s world: the prison he built (in his architect days), which he admires but the pilot considers to be a travesty, and, Quail Woods where Jake has spent his childhood, but the woods has slowly been ruined by people.

The book follows various ‘stories’ of Jake’s life: his Jewish mother, and her relationship with his anti-Semite father, his opinions on the Six Day War, his relationship with his wife, and his extramarital affair which he felt no guilt over, immediately becoming one of the men he hated. However, due to the evident disorientation, the stories may or may not be true, and one doesn’t quite know what’s a figment of Jake’s imagination, or what actually happened. It also leaves a lot of questions unanswered: What happened to Alice? What happened to the money? What’s the skin-covered Bible got to do with anything? What happened to Rook? Sara? Joy?

While this is a story about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s also a story about symbology (‘yellow dress’, ‘the glass aviary’, ‘the cherry tree’, ‘the woman clothed with the sun’, ‘the wilderness’ itself, etc), and the transience of everything.

What is better? To give up what you are and be alive, or keep what you are and end up dead? What you are is mere circumstance anyway. It isn’t that important. […] It isn’t more important than being alive.
I am telling you an you must listen: where you are from, what is yours, what is home – sometimes these are not the point. The truth is not everything. You have to know when it is time to walk away.

Harvey’s done an amazing job in creating a fairly realistic novel about Jake, and his disease. I found myself getting fast despondent over Jake’s condition, and had to close the book a couple of times, because I just couldn’t bear to read about how Alzheimer’s makes your life near impossible.

He breaks eggs into the pan and throws the shells away. He then takes the shells away from the bin again and stands with them in his hand with the idea that he needs them for the omelette – he can’t remember if the shells are like packets that you throw away or apple skins that you eat.

However, the part of the book that literally broke my heart, was when he told Alice that he had Alzheimer’s, and he’d known for two years (which was the ‘truth’ as he remembered it, even if it wasn’t the ‘real’ truth), and how she said she’d come and help. Nothing compares to the relationship a father and daughter share, and my dad’s been ill for the last two years, and I’ve had to battle some difficult choices, and it just hit home.

So, we’ve established it’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking book, that just makes us realize that no matter what we do today, or who we are, in the end, we’ll just fade away. Nothing is perpetual, not even in our own lifetimes, and sometimes, we just loop ’round and ’round in our own thoughts, convinced by the reality we make up for ourselves, and there’s no good reason why.

The one thing that did get to me, though, was the fact that the book was written in third person, despite it being about Jake, and the other peripherals (if I may call them that) in his life. In a manner of speaking, Jake is the narrator, but then again, the whole book focuses on the ‘he’ instead of the ‘me’.

Rating: 4

8 Responses to “Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness”

  1. Lucky you finding that. I have a copy from the library but haven’t got round to reading it yet.

    • @Claire : I am so sorry!!! I inadvertantly deleted your comment. Was using my iPhone, and when I tried to zoom on, I hit delete. Stupidly, it doesn’t show me a confirmation popup. Argh!!! So much for the iPhone being the best thing since sliced bread. Thanks, and I agree – calling it a bargain is an understatement.

      @Verity : I hope you enjoy it. Looking forward to seeing you post about it :)

  2. Great find!

    This is one of my favourite reads of the year – so emotional, but not straight forward. I’m pleased to hear that you enjoyed reading it.

    • That’s the thing – I don’t think it’ll make it to my top reads of the year (although, it depends on how many books we’re talking). It doesn’t make it to my top five, at least, so far…. I loved the book, but…. I don’t know. It lacked “something” to make it great instead of good, as I see it – maybe, it’s just the first novel thing.

  3. 5 novelinsights

    Oh you’ve inspired me. I’m going to look out for this one at my local second hand bookshop at lunchtime.

  4. This sounds like a very good read, but difficult subject matter: I am not sure if I would want to tackle it.

    Very taken with the cover, if I saw it second-hand I would buy it just for beautiful jacket! (And then I would have to read it, painful or not.)

    • It’s a tough one – I didn’t think it would be as emotional or evocative as it was. Hope you do find a copy though, as I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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