The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey

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Book purchased from <a href="http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780224089685/The-Wilderness">the Book Depository</a>

Book purchased from the Book Depository

Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness is another Booker long-listed book that I finished some weeks ago when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize — this first novel is doing very well in the prize world. Like Not Untrue & Not Unkind, it was a book that I did not like and felt then that I had little to add in the form of a negative review. Unlike Not Untrue & Not Unkind which I think has no merit whatsover, it should be noted that The Wilderness is very much liked by some readers whose views I respect, a number of whom have it as their current choice for the Booker (here's a link to the Man Booker discussion forum on Harvey’s book). I offer these thoughts up as a counterpoint, fully aware that at the moment at least this is a minority dissenting opinion. I did reread The Wilderness in the last few days — I found it to be only a little bit better book than I did on my disappointing first read.

Jake is in his early 60s. An architect, he left London in early career to return to the “wilderness” where he had been raised and grown up to practice his trade there. (Aside: For some of us in other parts of the world, architects practising their trade in a “wilderness” is not a viable concept at all — but I am more than willing to grant Harvey the licence of a different definition of the word in the context of the United Kingdom than what I am used to when I think of wilderness. It is also true that the wilderness Jake faces is much more in his mind than in his physical surroundings.)

When we first meet Jake, he is a widower, flying over the area where he lives in a small airplane — the excursion a present from his son, Henry, who is in the prison (that Jake designed) which can be seen from the plane. Jake has Alzheimer’s:

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 gound 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.

Harvey’s first chapter is an impressive piece of work in terms of setting her story. We get to know a fair bit about Jake — his wife, Helen, is deceased; his son is in prison; we know he designed that prison; we know this is the “wilderness” where he chose to live his life. We also know that his disease is changing that life, almost on an hourly basis:

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.

This would seem to be an appropriate point to declare my personal potential conflicts of interest with this book. I am 61 years old, so Jake is of my age. My father died a few years ago, of a combination of Parkinson’s and related dementia, so I have some personal experience with that. This a work of fiction and Harvey, in her defence, makes absolutely no claim that it is designed as a portrayal of Alzheimer’s. I had originally declined to read this book, wondering about how it would land — I can say with confidence that it did not spark painful memories that made it a bad book. If anything the opposite is true. Jake’s struggle with his condition may be how some people experience Alzheimer’s. It is light years away from my experience with my father’s dementia.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the way that the author locates the real world “constants” that Jake is struggling to put in order. There are, for example, three women in his life: his deceased wife, Helen; his one-night affair with the young Joy; his lifetime friendship with Eleanor, a childhood friend who is now his housemate, lover and companion. And there are his children, Henry in prison and Alice, also deceased. His ancestry — his mother was Jewish and escaped the Holocaust, her parents chose to stay in Austria and perished there. And there is Jake’s decision to leave London and return to his mother and the district where he grew up, sacrificing a career in the city to build a prison and boring housing estates, dreaming an unfulfilled dream about creating a glass house for himself and Helen, sunk on concrete foundations into the peat bog of the wilderness.

One of the exercises that Jake’s therapist requires of him is to build a timeline of his life, and locate these constants on the timeline. Harvey’s book is strongest when she captures his struggle to do that. By definition, Jake’s condition makes him an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that that normally applies in fiction. He desperately wants to be reliable but his condition means that he lacks the competence to do that and his struggles to put these constants from the real world into some kind of order is well-drawn.

So….the problem that I had with the book is that the undamaged and undecaying Jake is not an interesting character at all. While I can appreciate Harvey’s attempt to portray his dilemma (even if I do find it a major stretch to give it credulity), I find no answer to the question of “why” I should care about this. I finished this book (and won’t say that I hated it, I just found it severely lacking) mainly because other readers whose opinions I respect found in it something that I did not — Harvey not only misses the target, as far as I am concerned, she pretty much misses the board.

On both readings of this book, I found myself comparing my reaction to that I had to The Spare Room, Helen Garner’s Australian novel from last year about a woman who plays host to a longtime friend who has terminal cancer and is pursuing a charlatan treatment. Many readers (and its publisher) thought Garner’s book was brilliant — I thought it shallow and unsatisfying, for many of the same reasons that I find The Wilderness wanting.

I have tried to make this review both as honest and as even-handed as possible. Certainly this would not be the first book in recent memory that I have not liked that others thought was very good. Forlorn as the hope might be, I would like to think that these dissenting, negative opinions might help people evaluate this work, even if they reach a far different conclusion than I did.

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18 Responses to “The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Ah, this is the first negative review of the book I’ve come across. As you’ll no doubt know, I loved this one when I read it earlier in the year. I thought it was an incredibly accomplished piece of writing and the structure of the novel was very cleverly done.

    Still, the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything. And I think it’s important to publish negative reviews alongside positive ones: this allows potential readers to make up their own minds as to whether they’d be prepared to read the book for themselves.

    And, contrarian that I am, I tend to take notice of negative reviews – and read the books, if only to see whether I agree that it’s a rubbish read. I did this with [whisper it] The Davinci Code many years ago. Sadly, the reviewer who advised that reading it was a waste time was 100% correct! ;)

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do suspect that most potential readers of this work who wouldn’t like it self-select themselves out of reading, which would explain why there aren’t many or any negative reviews (I would not have posted my thoughts if it hadn’t made the longlist — and probably not read it all until it made the Orange shortlist). I can certainly see why some people like it and tried in my review to simply explain why I didn’t.
    Reading it did cause me to remember my days assigning books for review for the Calgary Herald. This is one of those that it would have been easy to assign to a reviewer who would slam it — equally easy to assign it to someone you know would be predisposed to like it. I always felt it better to take that latter course.

  3. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Good point about readers self-selecting. If I read a description of the book, I’d pass on it, but now after the review, I now know that my gut instinct is correct.

    Thanks for the sincere review.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Negative reviews can actually help convince people to read books, if the review is clear.

    They’re also valuable because if we only write up books we like, it can lead to a chorus of misleading positivity, where countervailing views aren’t heard because they don’t speak. That means that a reader who might well have rightly been put off by a negative review may waste their time reading the book instead, even though it’s not suited to them.

    So I think they’re valuable, I write up everything I read and while I take pains to select books I think will at least be interesting, every now and then I make a bad choice. It gives me absolutely no pleasure to criticise someone’s work, but if we’re not honest about our response what’s the point? So when I have to, I do, besides what I dislike about a work someone else may find a selling point.

    So I enjoy and find valuable your negative comments as well as your positive Kevin, dissenting opinions are important and we’re all poorer without them.

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I want to explain why I liked The Wilderness so much, but I’m not finding the words.

  6. Kerry Says:

    I just want to add to the chorus applauding the posting of negative (in the sense the reviewer did not enjoy the book) reviews. I find that if I try to be really honest about what the author was trying to accomplish while explaining what I did not like, I will often appreciate and respect the work more and, hopefully, convey that to anyone who reads my review. Kevin, I think your review of The Wilderness accomplishes that.

    Like Max, I tend to review everything I read. When I write a negative review, I try to describe the work in a way that makes it interesting to potential fans of the work. Authors generally put considerable effort into their novels. I want them to find their readers, even if wish I had not been one. At the same time, I want to talk about books I have read, sometimes especially if I did not like them.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My apologies for the late replies (especially to Guy, whose comment I did not even get moderated for a couple of days) — we were on a mini-vacation and the hotel internet server was having “upgrade” problems.

    I don’t think anyone should refrain from doing thoughtful negative reviews, which is what I would like to think this was. Often, as Max notes, a review like that motivates me towards a book — even when it is about a book that I liked, I appreciate that it has landed differently with someone else. (As an aside, this applies even more with theatre reviews). And I do like to indicate in that kind of review whom I think a book might appeal to (although I am still trying to figure out how Not Untrue & Not Unkind is a good book for anybody). Certainly one of the reasons to do this in the blogging world is that it invites comments from visitors who did not like the book. And I also exempt so-called “negative reviews” that consist of little more than “I hated this book and no one should read it” — if you are going to add any value, you need to say why.

    On the other hand, I don’t review every book I read. The ones I just put aside are usually because I simply don’t feel I have anything of value to say — I didn’t like the book and am not particularly interested in spending time saying why. As in cases like this one, when a book like that moves up the attention ladder — and readers like kimbofo and Colette, whom I respect and usually agree with — then making the effort seems worthwhile.

    Thanks for the comments. I normally give the Booker shortlist a reread — if this one does make the shortlist, I’m afraid I am done with it.

  8. Leyla Sanai Says:

    Thanks for your honest review, Kevin. I liked The Wilderness a lot but it wouldn’t be in the top three of my choices for this year’s Booker. I thought Harvey captured the shifting, unreliable quality of memories very well, and communicated very vividly the fact that without concrete memories, a person becomes a shell. I admired the book a great deal even though, because of the tragic subject matter, I didn’t actually enjoy it a great deal.
    I wonder if your inevitable emotional involvement with the subject of dementia had more of an effect than you realise? This may not be the case at all, but it’s just a suggestion. You say you didn’t find the undecaying Jake interesting and that while you admire Harvey’s attempt to describe his illness, you couldn’t find an answer to why you should care about it. I think people who haven’t experienced the horrible reality of a loved one with Alzheimer’s would find it insightful and interesting in that it casts light on a subject usually explored from the point of view of carers. Glimpsing what the sufferer might be experiencing was for me, a revelation.
    I know from experience that if I’ve read a novel dealing with a situation with which I’ve been personally involved but that differs greatly from my own experience, I find I have that ‘why should I care?’ feeling too. In my case it’s an emotional, possibly defensive reaction. For example, when I read Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship, which dealt with difficult mother-daughter relationships, even though I thought the book was good, I felt slightly spiky and aggrieved because none of the mother-daughter relationships was anything like as traumatic as the relationship I had with my mother, so that I kept thinking ‘So what? So you think THIS is bad?’
    Do you think possibly your own awful experience with your father made you less interested than you otherwise might have been in Jake’s illness?
    Sorry if this sounds intrusive or waffly, and you don’t have to reply.
    I’m wondering if your experience with your own father, which must have been extremely harrowing and sad, is at the heart of your own disappointment with The Wilderness?
    Re The Spare Room, I thought it was a good book but not by any means the best book I’d read last year. It dealt very perceptively with that one subject, ie the boundaries of friendship and so on, but for me, a Booker winner has to offer more than that.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Leyla , and they are not intrusive at all. Of course, no reader can avoid applying their personal experiences when they read a book and it is equally difficult to detemine just how much those influence an opinion.

    My problem with this book was not Jake’s state of dementia (which while different from my experience was at least understandable). Rather it was that the memories that he was trying to recover were of a person whom I did not find very interesting. I didn’t think the relationship parts with mother, wife and children were very well developed. And I probably would have liked it better if he had been a more accomplished architect. For me, his struggles with his illness were probably the most successful part of the book — and not nearly enough to overcome the weakness of the rest. I do acknowledge that other readers have reached a much different conclusion.

  10. Leyla Sanai Says:

    I see what you mean, Kevin. I agree that there wasn’t much on Jake’s relationships with his daughter and son. I think a lot of the book’s length was spent on mulling over the same pieces of shrapnel from Jake’s memory at the expense of exploring his relationships with his children. In a way, Harvey became trapped by her own idea of playing around with which memories were real and which weren’t, because the repetition of familiar images that that ploy required ended up taking up a lot of space.
    But I did think there were some really poignant sections which made the time spent repeatedly perusing those same snapshots of memory worthwhile. For example when the reader finds out what had happened after Joy and Jake’s night together, or when we find out what actually happened to his daughter, or what happened to the money.

  11. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, it’s been so good to read this and much appreciated and Leyla I’m one of those who is finding this book just too painful to read because of personal experience of my mum who had a very gentle but rapidly increasing confusion and memory loss eventually slipping into dementia in the final weeks of her life. It was heartbreaking to witness and I suspect the way I coped with it was without thinking too hard about the agonies of what it must have been like for her to lose all those skills she had taught me.
    I’ve started the book twice and each time it leads me right into the anguish that may well have been my mum’s thought processes and perhaps that’s to Samantha Harvey’s complete credit, but eventually I know I’m uncomfortable and so I have to stop, because I still can’t bring myself to go there.
    Interestingly Stefan Merrill Block’s The Story of Forgetting was fine, I read and enjoyed it perhaps because it offered some hopeful outcomes. The Wilderness just feels too bleak somehow.

  12. Leyla Sanai Says:

    Dovegreyreader, I’m so sorry you found this book so painful. In your circumstances, I think I would feel the same. I know that anything that conjures up memories of my father’s death (from a heart attack and then stroke) is unbearable for me, so I completely understand your very visceral reaction.
    I haven’t come across Stefan Merrill’s book. I agree that Harvey’s Wilderness is unrelentingly tragic. It would be a lesser book if it wasn’t, imo, because any element of optimism or hope in it would strike a false note; stink somehow of saccharine crowd-pleasing or a manufactured Hollywood type resolution. But it does mean the book is a traumatic read – and if it’s painful for someone like me who hasn’t seen a loved one decline with dementia, I can well imagine it would be intolerable for anyone who has.

  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    Leyla, thank you for your kind response.
    A bit of me hates not quite having the courage to read this book, it so rarely happens.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I don’t think it is a lack of courage at all. Rather, good common sense — however good a book might be, some are better left unread.

  15. Hannah Says:

    I have just finished the book but i still don’t understand.
    How did the daughter die?
    And why was the son in prison.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hannah: The book doesn’t answer either of those questions. If you like the book, the explanation is that these are examples of the memories that Jake can no longer recover. If you don’t like the book, they are examples of why it is not very good.

  17. Shastri Akella Says:

    I stumbled upon this book only recently was I was incredibly moved after reading it. The novel touches so many emotional registers and the prose, besides being rich, is resonate with observations on the human condition, vivid sensory details and a skillful repetition of imagery. I confess I am sucker for beautiful prose, which is why my favorite author is John Banville (and one of my favorite novels in the recent times has been “Dream Life of Sukhanov”). So it may well be possible that my personal bias makes me adore this novel as much as I do. But I intend using sections of it in the writing classes I teach, for the reasons described above!

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shastri: I must admit that I had to reread my review to recover any memory of what this novel was about — it obviously lands better with some other readers than it did with me, as some of the comments indicate. In that sense, your comparison to John Banville seems quite appropriate because he, too, provokes that kind of divided response.

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