The Wilderness is Samantha Harvey’s first novel, but it feels like a mature work, as well crafted and as cryptic—“familiar and strange in one breath”—as an ancient boat found preserved in the peat of the northern-England moors where the book is mostly set. The boat, like many other objects in this elaborately allusive text, is a metaphor for the problems of memory that dog the main character, Jake, an architect and the grandson of Holocaust victims, throughout his life.
Alternating chapters relate two crucial phases in Jake’s biography: the early ’60s, when, newly married to Helen, he decamps from London to the moors to care for his widowed mother; and his final years in the mid-’90s, soon after Helen’s death, when Alzheimer’s disease has infested his brain. “Odd, the way words sometimes make no sense anymore,” Jake thinks. “Odd the way he wants to gather them up like sheep and stop them escaping him.” As the disease progresses, the narrative grows abstract, and even the sections detailing the past become suspect; memories are questioned, repurposed, negated. Jake ponders the book’s central, scarring mystery, the death of his three-year-old daughter, Alice, but never quite resolves it. Harvey leaves clues about which of his recollections can be believed, but the clues themselves are unstable in their meanings.
There are, of course, risks in creating such an ambiguous tale. Though Harvey intends the experience of reading The Wilderness to evoke the vertiginous confusion of early-stage Alzheimer’s, Jake’s fog engulfs the reader more than it should. His most puzzling problems (Alice’s death, the loss of a thousand-pound inheritance from his mother) appear to have multiple, conflicting solutions, and the book’s conclusion obfuscates rather than clarifies them. The terrain of a deteriorating mind, as Harvey ably illustrates, is labyrinthine: “All of this he remembers and can see plain as day—he just can’t say when it happened. Like a photograph that cannot be placed anywhere specific in the album.” Yet here, she could just as well be describing the narrative’s sliding planes—dreams, fantasies, memories, and real events—which frequently shift out of order.
It’s one thing to dramatize the terror of losing hold on reality, another for the reader to feel, with Jake, that “every time he wakes up it is this wilderness that greets him, this no-man’s-land, filled with his daughter’s eyes and smiles on their way to an expression they never quite reach.” Still, one does not wish to overcivilize the wilderness, as Jake does, with his well-intended but quixotic projects for prisons and public housing. Harvey makes up for what she occasionally lacks in clarity with dense and evocative prose: a wilderness made aesthetic if not always navigable.