Monday, June 15, 2009

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey

Jake Jameson is taking an aeroplane flight. It is his birthday and the flight is a gift, one that he does not enjoy. As the world wheels and shifts around him he is disoriented. Below is the prison for which he was the architect and in which his son Henry is incarcerated. He is proud of his work but the pilot believes it is a blot on the landscape. He sees men in the exercise yard below
'Can he see his son? Can they see one another?...That one is Henry. No, he is mistaken. That one perhaps. That one? Impossible to tell he decides'
This short extract neatly sums up the basic premise of Harvey's novel. Can we see ourselves properly, can we see or know others. Jake has Alzheimer's and in this first person novel we see the decline of Jake as he sifts and sorts memories to try to get to their basic truth. But as the disease progresses he is left with less and less, the world becoming a bewildering place - the wilderness of the title. Who is the woman with whom he sleeps, who drove the car that knocked over the dog Lucky and where is his daughter Alice - did she die or did she live to tell him about her pregnancy?
The facts of Jake's life wheel and shift around him. It is clear that he is a man who thinks that facts and reality are important, for whom there is black and white and who dreams of glass
'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.'
His wife Helen though sees the world as a much more ambiguous place, despite her religious certainty
'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.'
As Jake's Alzheimer's progresses he is left with less and less certainty, things become more ambiguous, did his wife have an affair, did he? Does it matter that he can not remember, can he choose his identity or is he born with it
'He is giddy with the sensation that nothing, nothing, not even himself, is certain. And then he begins to wonder if perhaps this is a godsend, and that he can protect himself by filling in the gaps with what he would prefer as opposed to what was.'
Questions of identity abound throughout this novel. Jake's mother Sara is Jewish but she hides her Jewishness and is married to an antisemite. Jake embraces his Jewishness becoming actively involved in an organisation to promote Zionism.
As Jake's memories become uncertain he finds relief in being able to remember as he would like things to be and we, the reader, become more certain in our reading as the novel progresses as more and more, or should that be less and less, of Jake's memories are made available to us. This first novel was rightly shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year it is a heartbreaking and vital look at the decline of a mind.
'Back at the table he works again on the timeline, thinks he might have a coffee, stands, crouches to stroke the back of the dog's ear with his thumb, tells her silently, that he is terribly sorry for running her over, returns to the table, thinks he wouldn't mind a coffee, stands, concludes that he needs to urinate. Urinates, and returns to find the dog barking at the coffee machine, which is banging with dry heat and a crack working it's way up the glass. Fool that he is.'

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