THE WILDERNESS by Samantha Harvey


Email this review


A limp first novel from English author Harvey that moves back and forth between an Alzheimer’s patient’s past and present.

Jake Jameson experienced “his first true blankness” the day his wife died. They were both middle-aged when Helen was felled by a stroke and Jake was flummoxed what to do next. The couple had married young, in London, but Jake, an architect, had wanted to return to his native Lincolnshire to be close to his widowed mother Sara. They had two children. Their son Henry went to pieces after his mother died, drinking and stealing; now he’s doing time in the prison his father designed. Daughter Alice died when she was still a child. The circumstances are never made clear, and this is one of the novel’s major problems. Harvey chooses to write around events. Like Alice’s death, Helen’s death and Henry’s breakdown are not described directly, thus adding to the fog of Jake’s dementia. Perhaps Harvey is suggesting that the disorder of Alzheimer’s is the disorder of life writ large. At the heart of the novel are Jake’s relationships with four women: his mother, his wife, Joy and Eleanor. Joy is a young woman the married Jake met just once. They made love, whereupon Joy left for America, and they began a long correspondence, “the most honest thing” in Jake’s life. (The letters may be Jake’s fantasy, a poorly executed narrative trick.) As for poor Eleanor, Jake’s childhood playmate, she has loved Jake all her life and winds up as his caregiver and bed partner of last resort. There is certainly disorder in all this, though with a dash of contrivance; even Jake’s marriage to Helen, apparently a good one, may have been impaired “because there is no darkness in her.” Looming largest in Jake’s ultimate darkness are a gunshot and the color yellow, legacies of that tryst with Joy.

Harvey squeezes some pathos out of Jake’s condition, but not much else.

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-385-52763-7
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2008