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The Wilderness - Book of the Month

by Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey’s remarkable first novel deals, with absolute assurance, with the unknowable: what it feels like for your memory to disappear. As the book begins, Jake Jameson, a man in his mid-sixties, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jake’s psychologist has asked him to write a timeline of his life – an exercise designed to plot the process of his degeneration as well as to help him to hang on to his sense of self. This is a clever device for putting a structure around an otherwise kaleidoscopic narrative. Each entry prompts recollections which come to him vividly and often in fine detail. But for the reader, the process of reading the novel mirrors Jake’s decent into dementia: we reach an understanding of his life by reassembling the fragmented impressions that he reveals to us and, inevitably, our comprehension is as partial as his. In the end we are never really sure about the facts but what we are left with is the richness of experience of one man’s life.

Harvey imagines brilliantly the world of the dementia sufferer with all its cruel uncertainties:

‘The coffee is now cold. Hot, then cold. Full, then empty. Dark, then light. These are becoming markers of time – often, without them, his brain would not know how much time had passed, or even if it had passed. They are proofs of time. He cradles the cup and taps at its beige plastic..’

Although the subject matter could have been unrelentingly grim reading, it is testimony to Harvey’s talent that, while desperately sad in places, the novel is unfailingly engaging and unsentimental.

THE WILDERNESS is short listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009 as well as the Orange First Novel Award. We wish Samantha Harvey the very best of luck with them.

Read our interview with Samantha Harvey.

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