Book Review: 'The Wilderness' by Samantha Harvey

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, February 20, 2009


By Samantha Harvey

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 372 pp. $24.95

"The Wilderness" bills itself as a novel about a man who's losing his mind to Alzheimer's, but it's far more -- or less -- than that. It's closer to Virginia Woolf's meditative novels than anything else I can think of.

Yes, the novel starts realistically enough. There's Jake Jameson, 65, on the brink of retirement, utterly disoriented, zooming around above the moors and peat bogs of Lincolnshire, having been given the gift of a private plane ride that he really, profoundly, doesn't want to take. From the air, the reader glimpses many of the things that have made up Jake's life: a prison, for instance, that he built -- he's an architect -- and is inordinately proud of, although the pilot thinks it's a blight upon the land. And beautiful Quail Woods, which bad men seem to be cutting down, although, in flashbacks, it seems as if Quail Woods has been taking hits for the past 30 years. Jake can't remember, of course. His Alzheimer's is pretty advanced, and we can learn of his life only in patchwork, in Woolfian waves of partial recognition.

Jake spent his childhood in this part of England, by the peat bogs, the bleak moors, the close-by shore, the woods chock-full of birds as well as deer cullers (or killers) who carry with them the continuous possibility of unexpected, accidental death to unwary humans. The moors are Jake's natural home, and in London, as an adult, after he marries the surpassingly agreeable Helen (who turns out to be a Christian fanatic who speaks mostly by quoting Scripture but dismisses the Old Testament as myth), he insists that they move back to the moors, where he plans to build a glass house, his eye-stopping masterpiece.

Their domestic life turns out to be both narrow and complex. Jake's mother, Sara, is Jewish, an immigrant who hides her Jewishness. (When she lights her menorah, for instance, she places it in a window in the back of her house so no one will see it.) Her husband is a notorious anti-Semite who seems to be in the novel only to make fun of her faith, teasing her for believing in manna from Heaven, while she twists that word into "manners" as she chides him for his churlish behavior. Sara has also acquired a Jewish lover named Rook, so named because, as in the game of chess, he moves only in straight lines.

Rook has a granddaughter named Joy, with whom Jake falls in love. And down the road from Sara's house, in the very middle of the moor, there's a pub called the Sun Rises, which has a missing "e." (This carries heavy symbolism.) The bar is run by Eleanor, an ordinary woman who has adored Jake for years. As the years advance, one question in his life is: Will he end up with the glamorous Joy, the saintly Helen or the frumpish Eleanor?

This book is less about the erasure of one man's life than about the vulnerability of an entire culture. Israel has only recently come into being, and in 1967 the Six-Day War turns that country from underdog to military power. Jake feels one way about this; Helen has an entirely different set of emotions. The family fortune, which comes from Jake's mother's side of the family and which has been hidden for years under Jake and Helen's bed, instead of being deposited in a bank, also figures in this equation. Will Israel survive? What does it mean to be Jewish? Or Christian? Especially if -- at the end of our lives -- we can't remember one way or another?

Jake's life is delineated by symbols: the shining samovar that his mother says is the first thing she saw when she was born, the tiger rug that Jake is told was the first thing he saw when he was born, the cherry tree in Jake and Helen's front yard, the glass house in Jake's mind, the missing "e." Yellow dresses. Shining stars.

Jake and Helen have kids, but Jake can barely remember them. Henry -- could he have ended up in Jakes's badly built prison? And if so, why? And Alice, whom he thinks so much about -- did she spend time on the planet or not? And what about that family fortune stashed for so long under the bed and then mysteriously stolen? There's something fishy about that story.

Waves wash up on the shore and then recede. Our mothers give us baths, and then, perhaps, we are bathed by strangers. We drink coffee and then, perhaps, mint juleps. We dream of building glass houses (thus the term "dream house") but are just as apt to construct prisons. We eat pot roast and jam tarts; we sing and dance and love and hate. And sooner or later, all that is erased.

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