Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness is a terrifying and ambitious novel. Terrifying because it is about the disintegration of the human mind, and ambitious because it is predicated on that old chestnut, the fallible narrator. I'm of the opinion that fallible narrators are difficult creatures at the best of times - do it right and you question the very foundations of a reader's experience; do it wrong and your novel is a big fat fake - but a narrator with Alzheimers is something else altogether. The question is not 'has it been done well?' but 'can it be done at all?'
Jake is a recently retired architect in the middle stages of the disease, replaying the disjointed narratives of his life over and over in his head as though he is constantly on the verge of drowning. He holds on to a series of 'facts': his first wife, Helen, is dead. His son Henry is in prison (although what he has done to get there is unclear). He lives now with a woman he remembers as a sad old flame, but whom has since become his second wife. The rest of his memories swirl about these central tenets in flurries of lucidity and uncertainty. The Wilderness is built on them, in alternating chapters. The first, third, fifth and so on are in the third person (mostly) and bear objective witness on Jake in the present; the second, fourth, sixth etc are in a discomforting first-third person hybrid. That is, the tense is third person but the narrative is first person: we are in Jake's head, being told his thoughts and rememberings, apparently subjectively but with all the authority of objectivity. This structure is artful for two reasons. Principally, it allows us to track Jake's real world deterioration and measure it against the increasing befuddlement of his internal life, but just as importantly it allows Harvey to retain the same prose style while reaping at least some of the benefits of switching in and out of different tenses. She can sidestep the challenge of Jake's actually speaking - because it would be incoherent and horrendous, perhaps even impossible - by speaking as if she were him (which, of course, she is - cleverness, cleverness).
What are the things that Jake remembers? First, and foremost, he remembers women. The Wilderness may be a novel centred on a man, but that man is held together by memories of his mother, his wife, his lovers and his daughter. They are the branches on which he hangs thoughts, and certain of their actions recur often, migrating from one context to another: his mother bringing out her chipped china cups for coffee, his wife cutting fruit, his lover, Joy, wearing yellow, his elusive daughter picking cherries. These small actions of his women folk are key motifs in his life. Along with others - a gunshot he once heard, and the cutting down of a wood - they are inserted into the crevices of his recall. So often, in fact, that I was liable to lose patience after 200 pages of the sameness of his memoryscape. But I suppose it is true that each of us can be boiled down to a handful of intense, sensory memories, so intense that they have become symbolic of everything we know about ourselves.
The other thing he remembers is buildings. Not surprising for an architect, you might think. Yet it is not the technicalities that he remembers. A poignant scene early in the novel finds him sat in his office, just prior to retirement, reviewing some architectural drawings and completely at a loss to recall what they mean or what he is meant to be doing with them. No, it is the feeling of buildings that he remembers, and his philosophy of human interaction with them. Built into this is a surprisingly convincing apologetic for the concrete jungles of the 1960s, which Jake associates not with grey brutal despair but with a powerful yearning for freedom. Visiting his son in the prison which he partly designed, he remembers how it was he decided to append a square concrete extension to its beginnings as an elegant Victorian manor house. For him, back them, it was an act of subversion. Now we would think it a desecration, but then it was a striking out against the establishment, a step on the road to liberation from the tyranny of mere aesthetics. It was all part of a determination that human beings could be more than the beauty they created; they could live useful lives, in useful environments. Life and buildings could and would be more than prettiness.
Symbolism is something else that Jake remembers, or rather that Harvey remembers for him. You could even say that all he remembers are symbols. The cherry tree that dominates his memories of Helen and his daughter is a nexus of both hope and loss, although its starring role in the deaths of both his loved ones may be entirely imagined. Similarly, the tensions in his marriage are expressed in the opposition of buildings: the faux-Tudor marital home that his wife loves and he finds distasteful in contrast to the moorland wreck of his childhood home that he dreams of resurrecting.
It seems both courageous and foolhardy to use the unspooling threads of a ruinous mind as the backbone of a novel. The result is utterly and undeniably absorbing. Reconstructing Jake's life is a detective exercise - can we, as readers, excavate the 'truth' about his past, pick out 'fact' from 'fiction'? What, for example, is the significance of the bible bound in human skin which Jake's mother gives to him? Or of his advocacy for the state of Israel? What about the letters his first wife continues to receive after her death? Are they from a lover, or did he write them himself? There are no answers of course, because there is no Jake, not really. There is only Harvey and her artfulness. This is the game that novels like this play so well. It strikes me when I think of it: what a cruel, perfect trick a novel can be! Leading us on, to speculate about more than what is on the page, only to whip objectivity out from under us and wear its subjectivity so brazenly. The Wilderness reminded me, in this sense, of Ian McEwan's Atonement, a novel which stirs up deliciously prickly questions about trust and reality in fiction.
Harvey's narrative isn't quite brave enough, though, to inspire in me that same torrent of hate and love engendered by Atonement. There remains tension, I think, between her determination to write from the principle of Jake's mental dissolution and to write her very best. It is not always possible to meld the two, so that we end up occupying a disoriented middle ground, halfway between the first and third person: Jake's confusion on the one hand, and Harvey's authoritative prose on the other. I found myself yearning to hear Jake's voice; not just his thoughts, but his 'I'. I wanted more of a linguistic mess-up; not just a mire of memory but of actual words. A disorientation of more than facts. What is his self like at the end of his illness? We experience his memories and sanitized thoughts, but not his consciousness (because consciousness isn't entirely memories, is it?). I found myself frustrated; wanting to get up closer to his experience. Not that Harvey's talents as a writer are in question - she is highly accomplished - only I feel she could have pushed the boundaries further. She could have tried to move further into the subjective, or at least she could have pretended to do so a little harder. The question, I suppose, is not whether she could have written this novel better - I doubt it - but could she have written a better novel about Jake's Alzheimers? I think the answer to that question is yes, probably.
I have read half a dozen reviews of this novel now, and all of them mention that it is upsetting. I agree that it is, of course, both generally and personally. Certainly it gave birth to a paranoia about the inadequacy of my short-term memory - all of a sudden I seemed to be forgetting everything! Still, I don't think it tapped far enough into what is truly upsetting about Jake's disease. It didn't get far enough past the memory loss, past the confusion, and into the horrific dislodging of the consciousness, the thing in which everything else is rooted. Perhaps this is an impossible ask; probably it is. Perhaps Harvey has gone as far into the wilderness as it is possible to go.