The Wilderness

By SAMANTHA HARVEY

A device literary novelists sometimes use to pleasing effect is to unanchor certain images or thoughts so that they float free in the text, recurring for reasons that remain partially obscure. What the text loses in transparency is more than offset by what it gains in enigmatic resonance, musicality, and the delayed gratification provided to the reader by the eventual discovery of where these specially polished bits of the mosaic belong. In her astonishingly accomplished first novel, The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey has grounded this literary game in realism: the man through whose mind we apprehend the novel’s world is succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

Alas, no one knows better than publishers how hard it is to sell literary fiction on its own merits these days, and the pre-publication material for The Wilderness seemed in part designed to attract readers looking to gain useful insight into “a difficult and heartbreaking subject.” Don’t be put off — this novel is not the medico-sociological tale that description might imply. Harvey uses Alzheimer’s entirely for artistic ends, both as a focusing lens with which to explore the losses and confusions that accumulate in any human life, and as a diffracting prism to create a literary object of multiple mirrorings in different hues.

When we first meet Jake Jameson, he’s taking a ride in a small plane, looking down at a landscape that both tugs at some of his most intimate memories and confuses him. What landscape is it? How old is he? What year is it? He tells the pilot that his son is in the prison he can see below. He says he built the prison. Are these statements true?

The fullest way to enjoy The Wilderness would be to stop reading this review right here and turn to the novel instead, because Harvey wants her readers to begin, like Jake, up in the air. Which is not to say that grand mysteries or surprises wait to be revealed, rather that Harvey skillfully lets the small mysteries of a life of medium tragedies and temporary recompenses unfold for us in a succession of satisfying epiphanies. But those who feel they must know more can read on.

Jameson is an architect, and he really did build that prison, and his son, Henry, is really an inmate in it. The landscape is Lincolnshire, England. Jake seems to be somewhere in his 60s. His wife, Helen, died suddenly at some point in the past two or three years. The current year remains a matter of guesswork, because two things Jake has already lost are the ability to keep himself placed in time and to put his memories in correct order. (But there are hints; a newspaper headline announces that the president of Rwanda has just died in a plane crash.)

Half of the novel’s chapters are set in Jake’s confused present, in which he both stumbles through his days and tries valiantly (shading more and more into “vainly”) to remember his yesterdays. These alternate with chapters titled “Story of the Cherry Tree” or “Story of the Missing e,” which are set solidly in the past. These latter at first seem factually trustworthy, and maybe for the most part they are, but the reader should not forget that they are called “stories.” Sinkholes lie in wait for the unwary.

We wander forward, picking up names like half-sunken stones along a boggy road: Sara, Jake’s mother, an Austrian Jew who came to England before the war (this book about the inevitable triumph of oblivion is bookended by holocausts: that of the Jews and that of the Tutsis); Rook, a raffish and self-pleased gentlemen, seems to have been Sara’s lover both before and after her husband’s death; “Poor Eleanor,” who owns the local pub and apparently shares an important part of Jake’s past, as well as his present bed. Like sparks in a vacuum chamber, there are intensely charged but emptied-out memories of a young woman named Joy, who once, at the royal flourish of a distant hunter’s gunshot, made her entrance to a garden in a yellow dress.

And then there is Jake’s daughter, Alice. Aptly named, she has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Jake doesn’t want to think about her. She doesn’t seem to form a part of his life now. Where is she? In a book full of misdirections and revelations, Alice’s history forms the magnetic core. In connection with it, Harvey pulls off the most moving dream sequence I’ve ever read, in which she manages to induce in the reader exactly the same slow-motion, disbelieving dawning of the truth that Jake feels as he wakes from his dream: I can’t describe it, or even characterize it, without ruining it. I wish I’d written it.

There are a few small flaws of the sort that are often said to be typical of first novels. A couple of the leitmotifs — the hunter’s gunshot, the wet leaf stuck to someone’s skin — begin to lose their effectiveness by recurring too often. One or two superfluous contrivances — for example, mysterious letters that keep arriving for Jake’s dead wife, about which he obsessively speculates, but never opens — suggest that Harvey doesn’t put as much trust as she should in the inherent interest of her story. (The same motivation may lie behind the slightly strained withholding of the truth about Alice until virtually the last page.) And Jake’s son, Henry, remains too sketchy a figure to keep the fact of his incarceration in his own father’s prison from looming as too symbolic.

But let me return to all that’s so good. The novel has a very pleasing X-shaped structure: as the reader progresses through it, her own knowledge rises as Jake’s knowledge sinks. Thus the many mysteries of the beginning, which result from the reader knowing less than Jake, shade into the manifold dramatic ironies (some of them exceptionally sad) that flow from Jake knowing less than the reader. To give one example: in the classic version of the golem tale — from which Jake and Eleanor devised a game when they were children — the golem returns to inanimate clay when the e of emet (truth) on its forehead is erased, leaving met (death). Jake has confused the memory of his childhood game with a later memory of a blurred-out e on the sign of Eleanor’s pub, then mislaid both. When he puzzles helplessly over “the missing e” he is unknowingly enacting the fate of the golem: the e has vanished from his head, and he’s taken another step toward the clay from which he came.

Harvey’s depiction of the interior texture of Alzheimer’s — the panic, the blankness, the anger, the categorical confusion — is convincing and scarifying. “He can’t remember if shells are like packets that you throw away or apple skins that you eat. Packet or skin, skin or packet? Or box? Or wrapper, or case?” And her evocation of the Lincolnshire landscape is built up with masterful patience and a sure touch — the flat, peaty moors into which a childhood home can sink like a leaking boat, the gray vistas scored with flame-topped steel-plant towers, the air at times fresh with sea breeze, at other times heavy with a burnt sweetness from the sugar beet plants.

I salute, as well, her true and deeply sad insight that often the things we most want only come to us when they’re no longer wanted; and that sometimes the most important truths can only be faced when we no longer recognize what we’re facing.

Yes, this is a sad book; exquisitely and wisely sad, and therefore a somber joy to read. What is best about it is that hardest of all things to capture on a dust jacket: acutely observed characters living lives of convincing ordinariness, all of which makes fresh to the reader once again the truth that one individual’s particular life just happens to be the perfect stage for dramatizing the universal agon (with its attendant agony) of each and every conscious life. “And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness,” the young Jake quotes to his new wife, Helen, in urging her to move with him to Lincolnshire. Harvey’s novel argues with quiet and convincing force that all of us, when we leave the home of the womb, set up our temporary tents, for life, on the edge of a wilderness.