The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey
By Mary Westbrook
At the start of Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, The Wilderness, which won the 2009 Betty Trask Prize, Jake Jameson, the story’s aging protagonist, is high above the English moors, staring down from a biplane on a landscape he used to know. But when the sight of the pilot’s “thick neck” triggers a disturbing memory—Jake’s son, Henry, running through a field with a carving knife—Jake isn’t upset. He’s excited. “Some might say this is not a happy memory,” the narrator explains, “but [Jake] would object that it is not the happiness of the memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself.” The reason: Jake has Alzheimer’s. And so begins Harvey’s novel, which centers on Jake’s attempt to look back on his ordinary life through a near impenetrable fog.
As a young, married couple, Jake and his wife, Helen, left London in the early 1960s for the desolate countryside of Jake’s childhood. The novel explores Jake’s relationship with his mother, Sara; his career as an idealistic, if impractical architect; his marriage to the devoutly Christian Helen; his enigmatic children, Henry and Alice; and his infidelities. Because of Jake’s condition and the book’s narration in limited third person, past and present collide in the novel, not only against each other but also against Jake’s imagination and his dreams. (Halfway through the novel, Jake even dreams that he is recounting a dream to his daughter.) As a result, the reader is sometimes left unsteady, unsure of what has actually happened and what Jake has merely imagined. The overlap of time and place and real and imagined events can be jarring, but the result is a complex, sometimes cerebral story that at least one writer, Carolyn See, writing for The Washington Post, has compared to Virginia Woolf’s “meditative novels.”
The comparison seems apt. Like Woolf, Harvey is a lyrical writer invested in the psychology of her characters, what they want, why they want it and the winding paths their lives take. At the end of his plane ride over the moors, Jake “heaves a sigh of relief, recognizing in the slow-down of the engine, the lengthening of its chugs, a familiar creeping desire to be getting home.” Themes and big ideas, including that desire to “get home,” literally and metaphorically, drive the novel. Jake and Helen trade London for the moors. Jake, whose mother is Jewish, explores Zionism after the Six-Day War. Helen, graceful and religious, demands a proper physical home of Jake, who dreams of an arresting glass house atop the moors. Helen spends her life steeped in the Bible, searching, often to Jake’s bewilderment, for a kind of spiritual home.
Indeed, the underlying tension in the novel involves how the desire for home (safety, security, order, etc.) is complicated by Jake’s fascination with the concept of entropy, “the theory that says everything loses, rather than gains order.” Harvey holds an M.A. in philosophy, and she seems to have structured her novel around these competing idea—the desire for order and the theory that order is somehow against nature. At the end of chapter nine, for instance, Jake remembers his mother and her lover, Rook, drowning. When chapter ten begins, that memory is contradicted. “Your mother and Rook didn’t drown,” says Eleanor, Jake’s late-life lover and caretaker. “Where did you get that idea from?”
While the competing concepts make for interesting discussion, in practical terms the back-and-forth technique is risky because it makes for a sometimes-challenging reading experience. As a point of view character, Jake presses the limits of readers’ patience for unreliable narration (especially in a story told in third person). Considering Harvey’s stylistic choices, it’s hard not to compare The Wilderness to other fictional works centered on a character with Alzheimer’s, including Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” In telling her story, Munro relies on Grant, whose memory is intact, as her point of view character, instead of Fiona, who has Alzheimer’s. The story is poignant and the storyline is clear. Harvey certainly had similar opportunities for objective narration. Having played a prominent role in Jake’s life for decades, Eleanor, for instance, could have answered many of the fundamental questions Harvey leaves unanswered, including what happens to Jake’s children, Henry and Alice. Instead, Harvey chooses to weave ordered stories in one chapter, only to pull a thread and have the work come loose in the next chapter. It took me some time to decide that those unanswered questions and loose ends are part of the pleasure of The Wilderness, and part of Harvey’s point. In Munro’s story, I felt the heartbreak of losing a spouse to Alzheimer’s. In The Wilderness, I moved uncomfortably close to understanding something that once seemed ineffable—what it would be like to lose myself to the disease.
Yet we are never lost ourselves in this novel because Harvey keeps the dream of The Wilderness “vivid and continuous,” as John Gardner said, by tying the narrative together with objects. These items bring the heart of the novel (not philosophy, but the thrills and disappointments of an ordinary man) into focus. Harvey’s careful repetition of both wild and mundane objects—a human skin bible, gold-rimmed teacups, a miniskirt, a cherry tree—help readers navigate the story. Unlike Jake, the objects don’t change. They age and deteriorate, but a cup is always a cup, a miniskirt stays a miniskirt. Toward the end of the novel, Jake cannot recognize his wife in a family photo but when Eleanor points to Helen’s “famous miniskirt,” readers remember the half scenes and memories involving that skirt, not to mention the arguments and misunderstandings that made up Jake and Helen’s marriage. More than that, when Eleanor points to the skirt, readers know for certain that the skirt is a true memory, not a figment of Jake’s imagination. In a story that shifts so frequently between the past and present, and the real and the imagined, this grounding is critical. As objects such as the skirt reoccur, they take on more weight, becoming the “proof of himself” Jake is looking for, even if he can’t realize it, and the proof of reality readers need. We may not be able to trust Jake’s faltering memory, but we can trust the physical objects that connect past with present, and these objects act as lampposts to guide readers inside Jake’s memories, through his dreams.
Deciding to organize a novel in such a way seems like a difficult task, yet Harvey does it gracefully. Lacking the clear order of chronology, the author must trust that her choices will resonate with a reader. More importantly, that they will serve as both the engine of the novel to propel the narrative forward, and also vessels to gather and carry meaning. In the March/April 2009 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Michael Byers analyzed the significant role that objects can play in grounding a piece of fiction. “Optimally deployed,” he writes, “[objects] produce a grave, subterranean vibration, so deep as to be beyond the range of human hearing; and from this arises, as though in our bones, a mystical feeling that, yes, the story is correct, that it is saying something perfectly true about the world – that, indeed, the world is speaking to us in the only way it can, through the many silent things that make it up.” [Author’s Note: italics are Byers’s, not mine.]
The heartbreak of The Wilderness, of course, is that Jake is fast becoming a “silent thing” in his own world. After a former colleague solicits advice, Jake, the once-fiery architect, cannot remember the word for blueprint. Even more poignant are scenes between Jake and his therapist, “the fox-haired woman” whose routine questions and tests perplex and worry Jake. In a moment of lucidity, Jake demands a detailed explanation of his deterioration and then explains his condition back to the therapist, using the metaphor of a felled tree and a sensitivity she cannot match.
“It makes me think the brain is marked up when it is old and no longer any use,” he tells her. ”I’m no more than a tree. I’ve been marked up. I’ve been selected.“ He continues: “The brain is finite, this is what you mean to say. I understand exactly what you mean to say.”
The wonderful mystery of The Wilderness is this simple fact: Readers might get lost occasionally in Jake’s convoluted story, but, by the end of it, we understand exactly what it was he meant to say, and that, more than anything else, is proof of his existence.
For Further Reading:
For more information on Samantha Harvey’s work, upcoming events, or possible reading group discussions topics, please visit the author’s website.
Or read an excerpt from the novel here.
You can also read an interview with Samantha Harvey on the Man Booker Prize website. The Wilderness was longlisted for the prize this year.
And if you missed it the first time, be sure to read Michael Byers’s essay on Chekhov and his story “Lady with a Pet Dog,” entitled “The Copernican Author: On Point of View, Ptolemaic Characters, and Useful Unknowing,” which FWR published in July 2009.