You have to hand it to Samantha Harvey. She's a gutsy writer. Not only is her main character the opposite sex to her and double her age. Her protagonist, Jake, is also suffering from Alzheimer's. Whilst a few celebrated authors have been bold enough to give a character Alzheimer's, no one (that I am aware of) has ever attempted to write a whole novel from the point of view of the sufferer. This is a truly unique novel.
And Samantha Harvey not only pulls this off, but does it with confidence, artistic flair, wit and warmth. It is a sensitive novel told with heart and passion and raises not only questions about what it means to have Alzheimer's but also what it means to be human and alive and loved. As we move through our lives, how we see ourselves and are in turn perceived, is built from our memories. We are the cumulative product, after all, of our own lives, made up from the things we've done, the experiences we've had. Without the memories of this then, what are we? Who are we?
These are just some of the questions tackled in The Wilderness. As Jake slowly succumbs to the disease so his memories fracture, the threads that tie them together - the very web of the novel - becomes tatty, torn and broken. The plot lines that form the novel - the various periods of Jake's life - swill in and around each other. The revisited memories bleed into each other, fact into fiction, fiction into fact, tales within tales, memories within memories...
It is not depressing. This novel is life affirming, filled with characters that, whilst all highly intelligent and philosophically minded, are never annoying. Their quirks, their struggles, their minor triumphs bring them to life. Jake himself is not always appealing as a character but he is devastatingly human. As is the lovable `poor Eleanor,' his son Henry who is in prison, his daughter Alice who existed or maybe didn't, wife Helen, lover Joy. Even the dog, Lucky (if indeed that is her name).
Covering a complex web of inter-related tales and ideas that span as far as the eye can see, the novel is written with pristine care. Every sentence sparkles and zings with its freshness and Harvey's obvious fun with words, whilst the worlds her characters inhabit leaps effortlessly from the page. This is a novel that should be read slowly and savoured, just as our memories should be. The Wilderness is a truly outstanding debut and one of the most thought-provoking novels of the year. Word of mouth will undoubtedly launch this into the best-seller lists. If you don't want to be caught in amongst the crowd, I suggest you read it now!