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 [egg]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. --Brian Hall
Brian Hall is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Impossible Country: A Journey through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. His most recent book is a novel, Fall of Frost.
Read an Excerpt
In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eye on the ground below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all. Now he seeks out miniatures with the hope of finding comfort in them: the buildings three thousand feet below, the moors so black and flat that they defy perspective, the prison and grounds, men running in ellipses around a track, the stain of suburbia.
The pilot shouts something and points to the right. In the distance a wood is being felled and they can see a tree lean and crash, then another, like matches.
"Surreal from here!" the pilot shouts.
"Yes," he replies. "Quail Woods. Falling."
He leans forward and touches the shoulder of the pilot without knowing what he means by the gesture. A sense of grounding perhaps--he wishes to be back on the ground, and feels nauseous, and a little afraid. In any case the pilot must mistake his hand for a flapping neck scarf or even a bird gone off course, because he doesn't turn.
"My son!" he shouts. "Down there, in the prison!"
The pilot nods and puts his thumb up; maybe he has not understood.
"I built that prison, the new part, back in the sixties," he calls into the wind.
"Yes," the pilot returns. "It's awful, I agree. Blight on the landscape."
He leans as far out as he dare. Can he see his son? Can they see each other? He eyes with dim envy the mechanical, antlike grace of the men running round and round. That one is Henry. No, he is mistaken. That one, perhaps. That one? Impossible to tell, he decides. They are all thin from here, and besides, the wind blurs his vision. The prison is sliding behind them now as the pilot turns east and a limb of shoreline comes into view.
"My son went mad," he shouts to the pilot. He wants to clear up this point straight away, given that the world has more sympathy with the madman than it does with the criminal. "For a while, after his mother died," he qualifies. After all, the world has a short attention span even for madmen.
The pilot's word of reply is whipped away by the wind. It sounded a little like "No," as if the wind itself, the very atmosphere, has simply disagreed with him.
To steady his lilting mind, he focusses on the pilot's thick neck and the roll of collar, wondering what that material is called. It isn't leather, but something like leather, and quite a common thing, the sort of thing he should know. The sort of thing he used to know. Gingerly he touches it and then pulls away, clasps his hands together and brings them to his chin. He closes his eyes and feels a slight churning in his stomach; if only they could go slower, or down.
Now he casts his thoughts out for Henry and all he gets is the usual clamour of data. Henry, after Helen's death, running across the field behind the coach house with a carving knife, following the wing lights of a plane, shouting, "There is God, you holy bastard, come back!" Some might say this is not a happy memory, but he would object that it is not the happiness of a memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself. He reaches forward again in an attempt to attract the pilot's attention.
"Down soon?" he manages.
Another thumbs-up from the pilot, and a turn deeper into that mass of sky that seams with the sea, where everything is unmanageably large and wonderful, everything is excessive, he thinks. He consoles himself with confining thoughts of the prison, its four T-shaped wings and cramped cells.
They sail on; if he had more choice he would panic. As it is, where the engine's roar deafens him and the wind whips his limbs neatly into his body, he finds himself compressed into an involuntary composure, pinned back and down into his thoughts. At this moment there is just the image of Henry running manically across the field after that plane--the memory as vivid and isolated as a night landscape brought up sharply by a bolt of lightning--and then a converse image of Henry, sometime later after a period in hospital and drugs that made his hair fall out, tying on the apron Helen had once bought him and beginning a long, sleepy bout of baking: his specialities were hamantaschen and almond cakes from his grandmother's handwritten Jewish cookery book. The house smelt of hot sugar for weeks.
There is something about this utter deflation of his son that irks him more deeply than any other run of events, so that he can see him in ever decreasing magnitudes, like an object receding.
The prison comes briefly into view again over the edge of the plane, then disappears. He closes his eyes. Some time ago, after the madness, Henry broke into three houses along his own street in the middle of the day trying to find either alcohol, or money to spend on alcohol, or something to sell to make money to spend on alcohol. It was such an inept attempt at crime--in one of the houses the occupiers were sitting having lunch--that Henry was caught and sentenced to community service, which he didn't do because he was always too drunk to turn up.
He told the courts that he was likely to repeat his crime, not because he thought it was the right thing to do but because he liked drinking and drink made him irresponsible. So then he was sentenced to prison and enforced sobriety; Henry accepted this with good grace and what looked almost like relief. Yes, he remembers the expression on his son's face--a short smile, a heavenward look as if to Helen, and then a comment: My dad built that prison, it'll be just like going home.
The crime was trivial, hapless, and alcoholic, the downward spiral of it mapped loosely in his son's appearance. All his life Henry had been blessed with a plume of hair around his face, a plump--but not fat--figure, soft mollusc features, a gentle height like that of a large leaf-_munching animal, long eyelashes. He was pretty, his mother often said. But now he is hairless, thin. His eyes are still dark and bright, and he is still attractive if only one can get past the luckless look, but there it is--lucklessness is a kind of leprosy. You can't get past it.
Perhaps he does not want to see his son after all. The way the plane hangs and lolls on the air unanchored only seems to shake the giddied mind more, jumbling two names in his thoughts: Henry, Helen, Helen, Henry. Similar names--he sometimes confuses them. What if he one day forgets them completely? Then what?
Below them a bird flies, two or three birds. Far below that cars pass lazily along a road. The precariousness of his position is not lost on him, and the fear will not shake. He forces his mind down into the steep cleft of memory that always provides such comfort: him and Helen sailing along the beautiful flow of an American road on their honeymoon. A brown car, one shallow cloud in a deep sky.
But then very crudely and inexpertly the footage cuts to what he recognises as the beginning of a cruel montage of his wife's life, selected for tantamount pain and anguish. At first she appears in a languid sort of flash (persisting long enough to make the point without allowing the point to be explored); she is slumped at the kitchen table. It is that very particular slump strange with silence, the conspicuous lack of breathing. Oh yes, and the ring finger extended on the melamine tabletop as if severed from the hand, just, one must understand, for dramatic effect.
He forces his mind back to the brown car, and the cloud that seemed to follow them. Hours and hours like this, him and her, side by side and separated only by a hand brake, wondering why life had thrown them together. In the memory they see in unison with one pair of eyes, they eat, drink, and feel the same things without knowing each other at all. The only time their attention divides is when they make love and his eyes are to the pillow and hers to the ceiling. Even then some curious and serendipitous force nudges a sperm towards an egg and the creation of a new pair of eyes begins, new shared eyes. Who knows if this is love; it might as well be, it has the ingredients.
Then they are at the Allegheny County Courthouse. Helen stands on its Venetian Bridge of Sighs, eyes closed, freckled eyelids flickering as thoughts pass behind them. On one side of the bridge, he remarks, is the courthouse: here are the free and the godly, those who pass judgement. On the other side is the jail: the imprisoned, those who have been judged. The Bridge of Sighs is a moral structure, and he, as an architect, is becoming interested in just this: the morality, the honesty of a building. And his wife opens her eyes, shakes her head, and tells him that a Bridge of Sighs is no more about morality than is a bridge between motorway service stations. She warns him gently: one should hesitate to cast aspersions. A person's morality is usually a two-way journey--it just depends which leg of it you catch them on.
He takes her hand; they are not on the same wavelength. Never; she is always a frequency above him, and as if to prove the fact he is about to begin humming out the Buddy Holly in his head when she starts quoting something from Song of Songs, chapter five. My beloved's eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of water, washed with milk--then tells him that she believes she is pregnant.
He picks her up and spins her around, conscious that this is precisely what a man must do for his wife when confronted with such news. Does he feel joy? It might as well be joy, the buzz and panic of it, and the sickly feeling that he is falling into something that has no clear bottom. Then her spinning feet smash an empty bottle left on the ground, at which she struggles free of him and bends to pick up the pieces. He crouches to help.
"Jake," she says. "We'll call the baby Jacob, after you."
But he disagrees, having never seen the point of fathers and sons sharing names when there are so many names to choose from, and as an alternative he suggests something else, he doesn't remember now what.
"Henry, then," Helen says. "We'll call him Henry."
"What if he's not a boy?"
"He is, I dreamt it."
It is not that these surfacing memories just come. No, he casts around for them even when not exactly conscious of it, he forces himself into them and wears valleys through them. He plays games trying to connect them and establish a continuity of time. If it was their honeymoon they were newly married: this is what honeymoon means, a holiday for the newly married. He can nod in satisfaction about the clarity of this knowledge and can then move on. His wife was called Helen. If it was their honeymoon they were young, and he had completed his training, and Henry was conceived.
Here again is Helen, her bare shoulder beneath him and her hips sharp against his; she was only twenty then. They are in bed, then in the car. There is a hand brake between them; she lays her left hand on it idly and he can see the ring finger, calm and static against the rush of road.
The news on the car's transistor radio reports that a monkey has just come back alive from a space mission, and images have been captured from the spacecraft. Inside Helen's womb Henry is a solitary blinking eye. Helen says that flight is the most excellent invention and that, through photographs, it will allow the earth to see itself from outer space.
"If nothing else," she tucks her hair behind her ear, "mankind's existence is utterly justified by this gift it will give to earth, the gift of sight, a sort of consciousness. Do you understand me?"
"No," he contests after a pause. "Not really. But it sounds thoughtful."
Buddy Holly is still possessing his mind, and the tin-can voices from the radio (the word monkey sounding so strange and primal in that modern car on those wide roads). There is a sense of continued but happy absurdity at the way, with all the millions of people in the world, he is now Helen's and she his.
The pilot turns the biplane to the left and the airfield comes into view. "We're going to begin our descent," he shouts, pointing downward.
Very well, he thinks, staring again at the man's collar. The plane seems to pull back slightly and slow. Even up here, unhinged and feeling like a puppet swinging from a string, he finds the reserves to worry over the loss of that word. Leather? No, no not leather. But something like leather. The word skein comes to mind but he knows that isn't right, skein is just a word dumped in his brain from nowhere; a skein of wild swans, a skein of yarn. It is not about forgetting, it is about losing and never getting back--first this leather word and then the rest, all of them.
The moors spread ahead of them, and behind them Quail Woods is being disassembled tree by tree. One must be careful, he thinks as he turns from the man's back and strains to see the land below, not to become too attached to what is gone, and to appreciate instead what is there. He eyes the small neat grids of houses below and finds, as he always has, that these spillages of humanity are not to be scorned for their invasion on nature but are to be accepted, loved even; he names some of the streets in his head and maps the area with compass points and landmarks, his hands now clasped to his knees.
At the point at which he expects the plane to descend, the pilot suddenly turns its nose upwards to the empty blue sky. "One last dance!" he shouts. The wind rips through the cockpit as they change direction and the prison appears way down below at a tilt, as if sliding off the surface of the earth. Looking down briefly he sees, perhaps, a figure waving. Henry said he would look out for him and wave. He lifts his arm in response, less edgy now and more exhilarated by the air smashing against them and the disorientation as the plane lists and the scenery changes faster than the mind can map it.
From the Hardcover edition.