The Wilderness

The Wilderness

by Samantha Harvey


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An Orange Prize Finalist
A Man Booker Prize Nominee
Winner of the 2009 Betty Trask Prize
A Guardian First Book Award Nominee

Jake is in the tailspin of old age. His wife has passed away, his son is in prison, and now he is about to lose his past to Alzheimer’s. As the disease takes hold of him, Jake’s memories become increasingly unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive, or long dead? Why is his son imprisoned? And why can’t he shake the memory of a yellow dress and one lonely, echoing gunshot?
Like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, The Wilderness holds us in its grip from the first sentence to the last with the sheer beauty of its language and its ruminations on love and loss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307454775
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2010
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 703,945
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Born in Kent, England, in 1975, Samantha Harvey has an M.A. in philosophy and an M.A., with distinction, from the Bath Spa Creative Writing course in 2005. In addition to writing, she has traveled extensively and taught in Japan and lived in Ireland and New Zealand. She recently cofounded an environmental charity. She lives in Bath, England.

Read an Excerpt


In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eye on the ground below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all. Now he seeks out miniatures with the hope of finding comfort in them: the buildings three thousand feet below, the moors so black and flat that they defy perspective, the prison and grounds, men running in ellipses around a track, the stain of suburbia.

The pilot shouts something and points to the right. In the distance a wood is being felled and they can see a tree lean and crash, then another, like matches.

"Surreal from here!" the pilot shouts.

"Yes," he replies. "Quail Woods. Falling."

He leans forward and touches the shoulder of the pilot without knowing what he means by the gesture. A sense of grounding perhaps—he wishes to be back on the ground, and feels nauseous, and a little afraid. In any case the pilot must mistake his hand for a flapping neck scarf or even a bird gone off course, because he doesn't turn.

"My son!" he shouts. "Down there, in the prison!"

The pilot nods and puts his thumb up; maybe he has not understood.

"I built that prison, the new part, back in the sixties," he calls into the wind.

"Yes," the pilot returns. "It's awful, I agree. Blight on the landscape."

He leans as far out as he dare. Can he see his son? Can they see each other? He eyes with dim envy the mechanical, antlike grace of the men running round and round. That one is Henry. No, he is mistaken. That one, perhaps. That one? Impossible to tell, he decides. They are all thin from here, and besides, the wind blurs his vision. The prison is sliding behind them now as the pilot turns east and a limb of shoreline comes into view.

"My son went mad," he shouts to the pilot. He wants to clear up this point straight away, given that the world has more sympathy with the madman than it does with the criminal. "For a while, after his mother died," he qualifies. After all, the world has a short attention span even for madmen.

The pilot's word of reply is whipped away by the wind. It sounded a little like "No," as if the wind itself, the very atmosphere, has simply disagreed with him.

To steady his lilting mind, he focusses on the pilot's thick neck and the roll of collar, wondering what that material is called. It isn't leather, but something like leather, and quite a common thing, the sort of thing he should know. The sort of thing he used to know. Gingerly he touches it and then pulls away, clasps his hands together and brings them to his chin. He closes his eyes and feels a slight churning in his stomach; if only they could go slower, or down.

Now he casts his thoughts out for Henry and all he gets is the usual clamour of data. Henry, after Helen's death, running across the field behind the coach house with a carving knife, following the wing lights of a plane, shouting, "There is God, you holy bastard, come back!" Some might say this is not a happy memory, but he would object that it is not the happiness of a memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself. He reaches forward again in an attempt to attract the pilot's attention.

"Down soon?" he manages.

Another thumbs-up from the pilot, and a turn deeper into that mass of sky that seams with the sea, where everything is unmanageably large and wonderful, everything is excessive, he thinks. He consoles himself with confining thoughts of the prison, its four T-shaped wings and cramped cells.

They sail on; if he had more choice he would panic. As it is, where the engine's roar deafens him and the wind whips his limbs neatly into his body, he finds himself compressed into an involuntary composure, pinned back and down into his thoughts. At this moment there is just the image of Henry running manically across the field after that plane—the memory as vivid and isolated as a night landscape brought up sharply by a bolt of lightning—and then a converse image of Henry, sometime later after a period in hospital and drugs that made his hair fall out, tying on the apron Helen had once bought him and beginning a long, sleepy bout of baking: his specialities were hamantaschen and almond cakes from his grandmother's handwritten Jewish cookery book. The house smelt of hot sugar for weeks.

There is something about this utter deflation of his son that irks him more deeply than any other run of events, so that he can see him in ever decreasing magnitudes, like an object receding.

The prison comes briefly into view again over the edge of the plane, then disappears. He closes his eyes. Some time ago, after the madness, Henry broke into three houses along his own street in the middle of the day trying to find either alcohol, or money to spend on alcohol, or something to sell to make money to spend on alcohol. It was such an inept attempt at crime—in one of the houses the occupiers were sitting having lunch—that Henry was caught and sentenced to community service, which he didn't do because he was always too drunk to turn up.

He told the courts that he was likely to repeat his crime, not because he thought it was the right thing to do but because he liked drinking and drink made him irresponsible. So then he was sentenced to prison and enforced sobriety; Henry accepted this with good grace and what looked almost like relief. Yes, he remembers the expression on his son's face—a short smile, a heavenward look as if to Helen, and then a comment: My dad built that prison, it'll be just like going home.

The crime was trivial, hapless, and alcoholic, the downward spiral of it mapped loosely in his son's appearance. All his life Henry had been blessed with a plume of hair around his face, a plump—but not fat—figure, soft mollusc features, a gentle height like that of a large leaf-_munching animal, long eyelashes. He was pretty, his mother often said. But now he is hairless, thin. His eyes are still dark and bright, and he is still attractive if only one can get past the luckless look, but there it is—lucklessness is a kind of leprosy. You can't get past it.

Perhaps he does not want to see his son after all. The way the plane hangs and lolls on the air unanchored only seems to shake the giddied mind more, jumbling two names in his thoughts: Henry, Helen, Helen, Henry. Similar names—he sometimes confuses them. What if he one day forgets them completely? Then what?

Below them a bird flies, two or three birds. Far below that cars pass lazily along a road. The precariousness of his position is not lost on him, and the fear will not shake. He forces his mind down into the steep cleft of memory that always provides such comfort: him and Helen sailing along the beautiful flow of an American road on their honeymoon. A brown car, one shallow cloud in a deep sky.

But then very crudely and inexpertly the footage cuts to what he recognises as the beginning of a cruel montage of his wife's life, selected for tantamount pain and anguish. At first she appears in a languid sort of flash (persisting long enough to make the point without allowing the point to be explored); she is slumped at the kitchen table. It is that very particular slump strange with silence, the conspicuous lack of breathing. Oh yes, and the ring finger extended on the melamine tabletop as if severed from the hand, just, one must understand, for dramatic effect.

He forces his mind back to the brown car, and the cloud that seemed to follow them. Hours and hours like this, him and her, side by side and separated only by a hand brake, wondering why life had thrown them together. In the memory they see in unison with one pair of eyes, they eat, drink, and feel the same things without knowing each other at all. The only time their attention divides is when they make love and his eyes are to the pillow and hers to the ceiling. Even then some curious and serendipitous force nudges a sperm towards an egg and the creation of a new pair of eyes begins, new shared eyes. Who knows if this is love; it might as well be, it has the ingredients.

Then they are at the Allegheny County Courthouse. Helen stands on its Venetian Bridge of Sighs, eyes closed, freckled eyelids flickering as thoughts pass behind them. On one side of the bridge, he remarks, is the courthouse: here are the free and the godly, those who pass judgement. On the other side is the jail: the imprisoned, those who have been judged. The Bridge of Sighs is a moral structure, and he, as an architect, is becoming interested in just this: the morality, the honesty of a building. And his wife opens her eyes, shakes her head, and tells him that a Bridge of Sighs is no more about morality than is a bridge between motorway service stations. She warns him gently: one should hesitate to cast aspersions. A person's morality is usually a two-way journey—it just depends which leg of it you catch them on.

He takes her hand; they are not on the same wavelength. Never; she is always a frequency above him, and as if to prove the fact he is about to begin humming out the Buddy Holly in his head when she starts quoting something from Song of Songs, chapter five. My beloved's eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of water, washed with milk—then tells him that she believes she is pregnant.

He picks her up and spins her around, conscious that this is precisely what a man must do for his wife when confronted with such news. Does he feel joy? It might as well be joy, the buzz and panic of it, and the sickly feeling that he is falling into something that has no clear bottom. Then her spinning feet smash an empty bottle left on the ground, at which she struggles free of him and bends to pick up the pieces. He crouches to help.

"Jake," she says. "We'll call the baby Jacob, after you."

But he disagrees, having never seen the point of fathers and sons sharing names when there are so many names to choose from, and as an alternative he suggests something else, he doesn't remember now what.

"Henry, then," Helen says. "We'll call him Henry."

"What if he's not a boy?"

"He is, I dreamt it."

It is not that these surfacing memories just come. No, he casts around for them even when not exactly conscious of it, he forces himself into them and wears valleys through them. He plays games trying to connect them and establish a continuity of time. If it was their honeymoon they were newly married: this is what honeymoon means, a holiday for the newly married. He can nod in satisfaction about the clarity of this knowledge and can then move on. His wife was called Helen. If it was their honeymoon they were young, and he had completed his training, and Henry was conceived.

Here again is Helen, her bare shoulder beneath him and her hips sharp against his; she was only twenty then. They are in bed, then in the car. There is a hand brake between them; she lays her left hand on it idly and he can see the ring finger, calm and static against the rush of road.

The news on the car's transistor radio reports that a monkey has just come back alive from a space mission, and images have been captured from the spacecraft. Inside Helen's womb Henry is a solitary blinking eye. Helen says that flight is the most excellent invention and that, through photographs, it will allow the earth to see itself from outer space.

"If nothing else," she tucks her hair behind her ear, "mankind's existence is utterly justified by this gift it will give to earth, the gift of sight, a sort of consciousness. Do you understand me?"

"No," he contests after a pause. "Not really. But it sounds thoughtful."

Buddy Holly is still possessing his mind, and the tin-can voices from the radio (the word monkey sounding so strange and primal in that modern car on those wide roads). There is a sense of continued but happy absurdity at the way, with all the millions of people in the world, he is now Helen's and she his.

The pilot turns the biplane to the left and the airfield comes into view. "We're going to begin our descent," he shouts, pointing downward.

Very well, he thinks, staring again at the man's collar. The plane seems to pull back slightly and slow. Even up here, unhinged and feeling like a puppet swinging from a string, he finds the reserves to worry over the loss of that word. Leather? No, no not leather. But something like leather. The word skein comes to mind but he knows that isn't right, skein is just a word dumped in his brain from nowhere; a skein of wild swans, a skein of yarn. It is not about forgetting, it is about losing and never getting back—first this leather word and then the rest, all of them.

The moors spread ahead of them, and behind them Quail Woods is being disassembled tree by tree. One must be careful, he thinks as he turns from the man's back and strains to see the land below, not to become too attached to what is gone, and to appreciate instead what is there. He eyes the small neat grids of houses below and finds, as he always has, that these spillages of humanity are not to be scorned for their invasion on nature but are to be accepted, loved even; he names some of the streets in his head and maps the area with compass points and landmarks, his hands now clasped to his knees.

At the point at which he expects the plane to descend, the pilot suddenly turns its nose upwards to the empty blue sky. "One last dance!" he shouts. The wind rips through the cockpit as they change direction and the prison appears way down below at a tilt, as if sliding off the surface of the earth. Looking down briefly he sees, perhaps, a figure waving. Henry said he would look out for him and wave. He lifts his arm in response, less edgy now and more exhilarated by the air smashing against them and the disorientation as the plane lists and the scenery changes faster than the mind can map it.

Reading Group Guide

An Orange Prize Finalist
A Man Booker Prize Nominee
Winner of the Betty Trask Prize
A Guardian First Book Award Nominee

The introduction and discussion questions that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Samantha Harvey's remarkable novel, The Wilderness.

1. The Wilderness is written entirely from the viewpoint of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Through his illness, Jake confronts issues like making and losing memories, personal identity, the passing of time, and relationships with others. Though this is all seen through the lens of Alzheimer’s, to what degree is his experience universal?

2. To what do you think the “wilderness” of the title most refers?

3. At the beginning of The Wilderness we assume that Jake is a reliable narrator, recounting for us the events of his own life. As the novel progresses, we learn that we can’t trust his view of things. How does this affect your response to him, and to the story you are being told?

4. Interleaved within the chapters are separate stories that illustrate events in Jake’s life. Discuss why you think the author has chosen to develop the story this way. What do you think are the meanings behind each story? In what way do they illustrate the progression of Jake’s disease?

5. Through Jake’s eyes, his wife Helen is a woman with unswerving loyalty, integrity, and religious faith. We know that Jake’s judgment cannot always be trusted, and that he uses his wife’s piety to feed his self-guilt. Given this, in what ways do you think his portrait of Helen is valid?

6. Despite everything, do you think Eleanor has or hasn’t gotten what she wanted in ending up with Jake?

7. Discuss which you believe has been the most important relationship in Jake’s life and why.

8. War provides two of the turning points in Jake’s life. Firstly, World War II, after which his mother all but relinquishes her—and his—Jewish ancestry; secondly, the Six-Day War, which he feels is instrumental to his daughter’s death. When looking back, is it true that our lives tend to be mapped by external, historic events as much as by personal ones?

9. Jake begins his career as an architect in 1960s Britain. Decades later, many of the buildings of that time are condemned or knocked down. How do you think his involvement in that derided period of architectural history affects who he is and how he feels about his life?

10. Jake thinks he has kept his disease successfully hidden from his son Henry. Because the point of view remains with Jake, we never know exactly what Henry knows, when or how he finds out his father has Alzheimer’s, and how he feels about it. Do you have your own opinions on these questions involving Henry’s experience?

11. What do you think happened to Alice?

12. Due to Jake’s forgetting, many questions are left unanswered at the end of The Wilderness. Do you think the ending is appropriate or were you troubled by not knowing the answers? Discuss whether or not you feel that a novel needs to tie up all its loose ends in order to be a satisfying read.

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

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Wilderness 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
JimElkins on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There is a scene early in this novel in which a man's mother gives him an old Bible as a gift. "'It belonged to my parents,' she said. 'Why don't you have it now, now that you're married to a religious woman?'" the mother asks. "'It's my gift to you both, maybe a wedding gift since you just ran away and married in secret.'"This is a typically bald moment. Big things come spurting out here without any warning. "He nodded, a little underwhelmed by the gift...""'Helen will like it,' he said eventually, deciding to find in his mother's gesture some attempt ar friendship with his wife.'"'I doubt it, the cover is human skin,' she said."Here are two questions Samantha Topol might ask herself. First, would Ian McEwan, for example, write this kind of scene? If she thinks the answer is Yes, or Possibly, or Why not?, then I suggest she might consider she doesn't have much feeling for novel writing. If the answer is No, then she might ask herself, Why not? The answer there might lead into all kinds of questions about how events are staged and framed in novels, how novelists lead into difficult subjects, how they let events resonate before and after they occur, how they let their characters ruminate and mull and ponder, and not just lurch from one revelation to the next.Some people really do experience life this way, and I feel Topol is one. That's a question of character, not writing. But this is a novel, and these moments are too naked, too coarse, too unmodulated, too full of clichés and unreflective stereotypes. At the moment I am reading Vila-Matas. He is far from a perfect novelist!--but he would never write scenes like the ones in this book.
Tea58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey is a book mainly about a man named Jacob. All the other characters are family, friends or business associates of Jacob. Sadly, Jacob is living the rest of his days on earth with Alzheimer's Disease. In my eyes, Samantha Harvey's book is all about memory. Before Jake lost the ability to remember his everyday life he worked as an architect. His own hands designed the prison in which his son lives out his days as a prisoner. Oddly, Henry and Jacob are both prisoners.Alzheimer's Disease is catastrophic. Henry might walk out of prison someday and experience freedom again. However, the cells of Jake's brain are dying. Cells that will not grow again. The death of his brain Leaves Jake unfamiliar with any coherent sequence of events. To remember three small words is a gargantuan task. To think whether his wife is dead or alive is also hard to recall."He spends his time getting up to look for his dog, then, after some wandering, sits, forgetting what it was he had got up to do. "Samantha Harvey's ability to write about the mind of a man sliding away from him like some person sliding down a hill on slippery ice is magnificent. I feel it had to be no easy task to look at the world through the eyes of a person with Alzheimer's Disease. On the cover of the book is a cup and saucer and a wilderness. Both ofthese items are so disconnected. Everyday Jake's thoughts about his wives, lover, son, mother are broken in to tiny pieces like the tiles of a mosaic. Only his mosaic will never form a work of art. His mosaic is always going to make him feel stressed, numb, lost or like he has done something wrong.The book is not an easy book to read. After all, it is about a broken mind. Still, the characters are interesting: Henry, Alice, Sara, Eleanor, etc. I would have liked to know more about Henry before he became incarcerated. It was fascinating reading about Sara's Jewish traditions and what it was like to live with a husband who was not Jewish. These are the scraps of fabric that make up Jake's identity.With all that Samantha Harvey has put in the book, she does not leave out the caretaker. I am sure the caretaker's life is beyond extraordinary during the days of caring for an Alzheimer's patient. All of the people involved in true stories are ordinary heroes dealing with the unknown. The only known factor being memory is what shapes us.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jake is in his 60s, and has Alzheimer's. The Wilderness is told from Jake's point of view, allowing the reader to experience the devastating progression of his disease. At first, Jake has trouble finding the right word to describe an object. It's a mild inconvenience, but he can still hold it together in public -- for example, at his retirement party. Slowly, he begins to lose his short-term memory, putting objects away in the wrong places and forgetting what he is about to do, or what he has just done. However, his memories of the distant past are still clear, and he clings to those stories and images as a drowning man would cling to a lifeline. Jake married a woman named Helen, and together they left London for "the wilderness" of Lincolnshire, Jake's boyhood home. They had two children, and lived near Jake's mother Sara and her second husband, an eccentric man named Rook. Life was not always easy for Jake and Helen: his career fell slightly short of his dreams, and creating a family was not as easy as they'd hoped. Sometimes they were there for each other; at other times they each found solace in someone else. The story of Jake's past is interspersed with moments from the present, in a kind of mishmash intended to reflect the wilderness his brain has become. As Jake's condition deteriorates there are more and more gaps in his short- and long-term memory. There was one scene in which some especially emotional events take place, and at the end it's revealed that this was all a dream, embodying many of Jake's regrets and wishes. The Wilderness is a sad story, and very well-written, but also quite difficult to read. I found myself taking it slowly, trying to ease the pain. I can't say this was an enjoyable book, but it was definitely worthy of its 2009 Orange Prize nomination.
alexdaw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story is about Jake who is steadily deteriorating from Alzheimers. Rather like a puzzle, we weave in and out of Jake's thoughts, dreams and daydreams as he tries to determine real memory from mis-remembering. Strong female characters feature in this story - from his mother Sara, to his wife Helen, his lover Joy and the woman who cares for him in his illness, a friend from childhood, Eleanor. I have not yet been acquainted with Alzheimers personally thought I have picked up fragments here and there from the press and also through personal accounts from friends who are caring for afflicted relatives. And it is a real affliction - a torment I believe - which is why the book is so very difficult to read!! The author has captured the torment a reader we struggle to know what is "real" and what is "fiction" - a clever conceit if you will. So whilst not my preferred choice for the Booker, I can admire the writing, the characterisiation and the concept. For a first novel I think this is a triumph and such a shame that it wasn't shortlisted.
pokarekareana on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For Jacob Jameson, life has become strange and confusing. His brain is failing him, his ability to recognise his loved ones is slipping away from him, and his memories constantly reshape and rearrange themselves within his consciousness. Jacob has Alzheimer¿s disease.This was a touching, enthralling story, and yet it wasn¿t really a story at all. It avoided the possible dangers of tangling itself into dreadful knots, or maintaining a clinical distance. I felt like I shouldn¿t be able to read a book in which no character remains the same from one chapter to the next, but I was carried along by the vignettes of Jake¿s life, in which more questions seem to be raised than are ever answered. This book is probably a difficult read for people who need all of the threads to be neatly tied up at the end of a story.I don¿t know an awful lot about this disease. I have only ever experienced in the context of watching the slow disassembly of elderly relatives¿ personalities in a constant spiral of circular conversation and repeating my own name to remind them who I am. Until I read this book, I had never really grasped the devastating extent of this confusion and amnesia. Scary, but immensely thought-provoking.
rainpebble on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Wilderness by Samantha HarveyMy thoughts and comments:This book was a very difficult read for me what with my father-in-law and his father both succumbing to Alzheimer's Disease or dying of complications of the disease. It brought back a great many difficult memories and as my beloved father-in-law just passed a year and a half ago some of those are still very raw.This is the 2nd or 3rd Orange book of the month that I have read that has been written in a past tense and present tense back & forth manner. I do like this style of writing and I will say that this book was well written. However, I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters other than perhaps the protagonist's mother and her gentleman friend, whose parts were rather small.So I liked the style of the book but I can't say that I liked the book because of the personal issues that I had to deal with while reading it. Someone who has not had to live with this disease would, I am sure, have a whole different take on the book. I gave it 3 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loked again
pwee More than 1 year ago
A grand novel, written in such a way that you, yourself, feel as though you were suffering the disease. Heart-wrenching, yet at the same time insightful, Harvey did a great job in portraying her character as he battles to contain his hold on precious memories, attempting to decipher what is truth, and what is a folly imagining created by the disease, fearful that, at some point, he will soon lose all remembrance of his jumbled past, and therefore himself, too. A great novel, as before stated it vividly portrays the effects of Alzheimer's disease, but a bit strange in some areas of the character's life, such as the continued reference of the human skinned bible, the immensely unnatural behavior of his religious mother, and, in fact, the main character's own strangeness as he recalls specific memories of his life. It was a good novel, definitely worth a look at, but at the same time I must admit that it disturbed me upon many occasions due to its strangeness, which was rather creepy in a number of areas.
adunlea More than 1 year ago
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (Book Review) The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey is now in paperback by Jonathan Cape. It has been short listed for the Orange Prize. It is the author's debut novel. She has a masters degree in philosphy and has taught English, so I am now suprised it is literary and truthfull. It has been brillantly researched. This is a psychological fiction novel about Jake a 60 year old architect who has short term memory loss but his long term memory is ok. The story is his reconciltion of life as he remembers it as he sits on a plane overlooking his country. It is written in a compassionate and literary style. Nothing is as it seems. The disease highlights loss and confusion in life. "In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, they are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface". As his Alzheimers progresses his memory and his identity goes. It is narrated in the third person and its prose is lyrical. This book is the wilderness of a confused mind attacked by Alzheimers Disease. The story moves back and forth as Jake goes through memories. Fact and fiction and past and present blur in his stories. " I feel like all my wires are been unplugged one by one. Not even in order just one by one." This is heartwrenching and a thought provoking read. It reads like a family drama and we slowly gather the jigsaw pieces together to discover the true story. This book conveys the signifance of our memory and the cruelty of old age. We can outlive our bodies and minds. Anything is plausible and nothing is certain. The themes that run through the novel are: loss, conflict, marriage, love and religion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago