Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, The Wilderness, jumped down off the bookshelf at me thanks to its pretty cover, which bears a cherry blossom tree full of macaques, a sky full of yellow birds and a woman in a yellow dress standing in the snow by a desolate farmhouse. Funny that the cover should be so appealing really, since the book’s subject matter is far from it. Alzheimer’s disease – shudder. Show me someone who doesn’t fear it.
The book’s protagonist, Jake, is an architect whose wife died suddenly in her early fifties. When we meet him he is reeling from the loss, reading all the bereavement leaflets he can find at the doctors, which tell him not to be afraid if he sees his wife in ghost form. We are told that Jake “lived by the leaflets. The leaflets said there was the chance of a presence, and on balance and in view of all he had been and was, he felt it was his due. But it did not come.” Straight away, Harvey shows her knack for describing loneliness the way it really is.
In the torment of grief, Jake hardly notices the memory loss that creeps up on him but then the realisation comes, bringing panic with it. He tries to keep hold of the facts, rereading old letters which pose questions like: how can people live without grass? “He could live without grass, he thinks in a minute of panic, he could live without anything if he could have his thoughts back.” In his shoes, I’m sure I’d feel the same. That sense of appreciation that is only ever truly felt when the things we take for granted are about to be stolen is perfectly rendered by Harvey.
She then takes us back in time, to Jake’s childhood, to his early marriage to Helen, from the birth of their first child, Henry, to their desperation for another, Jake’s beloved Alice. When Alice comes to visit her father as an adult, Jake he is so excited that he waits at the bus station for hours before her bus is due. Finally she arrives, bringing her new boyfriend, an irritating poet, and the announcement that she is pregnant. Jake is overjoyed but then he finds himself awake on his bed, alone and realises that “there is no poet. There is no grandchild coming. No Alice. There is only now. Now! Like a punch in the face.” In the coming pages, we learn that Alice is dead but, like Jake, we’re not sure how, when or why.
Now death becomes an altogether confusing thing, as the years blur in Jake’s mind. “Mother is dead (how did she die?)…Alive, dead; there is a profound difference, but he does not know what it is.” Again, Harvey has a talent for making the unimaginable parts of Alzheimer’s imaginable. You imagine forgetting things you’ve done, people’s names, trivia – that sort of thing…but it’s hard to imagine forgetting the conceptual difference between ‘dead’ and ‘alive’. That’s much harder to swallow. The feeling of panic must be incredible.
After waking from the Alice dream, in which he fed his dog, Jake wonders “was it all a dream? Is the dog real? Did he feed her the lamb, and has he ever fed her lamb, and has he ever even fed her at all? I bet I have killed her, he thinks.” It seems that nothing is certain once you enter the world of Alzheimer’s. Indeed, by the end of the book, Jake looks at a picture of himself and only has the vaguest idea that he has seen this man somewhere before.
You can imagine how you’d want to kick against the idea of incurable disease, especially as physically you’d feel fine – not sick, not disabled. At one point Jake thinks “as he often thinks, that perhaps he is not ill at all, or if he is it is very mild, or his case is quirky and reversible; it is, after all, not like him to get old and unwell.” I think I’d feel like that. It must be hard to give up – that’s the way people are made. It’s so hard to live without hope that you probably feel bound to create it where you can’t find it. The concept of total defeat is just too horrible to accept.
At the beginning of the book, architect Jake, who has seen his buildings demolished and replaced, finds the idea of entropy fascinating:
“Entropy – the theory that says everything loses, rather than gains order. A cup of coffee will, with enough time, get cold, but no amount of time will cause it to get hot again. A house can become a mere pile of bricks of its own accord, but a mere pile of bricks will never become a house of its own accord. Everywhere nature’s fingers unpick as if trying to leave things as they would be if humans never existed.”
Of course, by the end, Jake no longer knows what entropy is. It has worked its spell on him. He has forgotten everything – even things you don’t think of as memories. To miss someone and not recognise that they are the unwelcome stranger who keeps following you around the house, to yearn for home and not know that you are already there – we are talking about the ultimate exercise in futility, the ultimate in entropy. Eventually, a person remains so picked apart by nature that they only exist in the most literal sense.
There we have it then. A very human story from Samantha Harvey – an author to watch out for. Unflinching, thought-provoking, beautiful and very, very sad.