The Wilderness

Jake Jameson is a sixty-five-year-old architect who is on the cusp of retirement. One evening he’s sitting alone in the office, staring down at an architectural drawing. He can’t quite figure out what he’s supposed to do with it. Suddenly he remembers a word, one for which he has been trying for days to recall; entropy – for him the single most interesting theory that exists, a theory that says everything loses, rather than gains, order.

This idea underlies this riveting tale of a man whose memories are slowly eroding. As Alzheimer’s begins to wear away his sense of identity, Jake builds stories around his life that inform his feelings of blame and responsibility – only to have the stories disintegrate faster than he can capture them. As the plot keeps shifting and the facts unravel, little mysteries start to form: What was the problem with the missing letter “e”? What was behind the mythologies that his Jewish mother told him as a child? Where is his daughter Alice? What happened to her? Eventually we realise that even Jake’s clearest memories may not be true. He is the flawed witness to his own past, the ultimate unreliable narrator. Yet in the end we are left with a clear and moving portrait not only of a sympathetic man but also of a heartrending disease as seen from the inside out.

Arrestingly understated and wise, The Wilderness is a memorable first novel by an extraordinarily gifted new writer.

The Wilderness was shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the inaugural AMI Literature Award and the Betty Trask Prize.

‘Brave and intelligent – a mesmerising work.’ THE INDEPENDENT

‘Harvey shows her remarkable powers of empathy and her no less remarkable literary skill . . . from start to finish her control is absolute. I can think of few more distinguished literary debuts in recent years.’ LITERARY REVIEW

‘Deeply original and captivating . . . Full of urgent life that it rouses even as it terrifies.’ OBSERVER

 We call upon the author to explain

Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The Past’:

‘The past is inaccurate. Whoever lives long enough knows how much what he had seen with his own eyes becomes overgrown with rumor, legend, a magnifying or belittling hearsay. “It was not like that at all!” – he would like to exclaim, but will not, for they would have seen only his moving lips without hearing his voice.’

I found this short passage long after I finished writing The Wilderness, but it sums the novel up for me. The past is inaccurate, Milosz says, and I love the stress on the last word. Never was there a more inaccurate thing; it’s a fiction that we are driven to invent around a few (ever diminishing) known facts, in the attempt to define who we are. But our past selves, too, are fictional. The self I was this morning, or thirty years ago, is a fictional character. And, for me, The Wilderness is about this: Jake is a man who, in the disintegration of his memories through dementia, is trying not to become fictional to himself.

He fails, though, because he is bound to fail. I wanted to question in the novel whether this failure matters. The rumour and legend he builds around his own past become half-satisfying to him, perhaps more so than the reality of past events as they happened, and I think we all do this in our own ways – reinvent the past so that it is more acceptable to us. At the end of the novel Jake is left with a whittled universe, but one in which he is still the agent and hero of his own life in whatever limited way.

Maybe this leaves him with something broadly inaccurate but fundamentally true, some adamance that he is more than this sum of forgotten things. Milosz again, speaking about ‘old people’:

‘They were betrayed by their bodies, once beautiful and ready to dance. Yet in every one a lamp of consciousness is burning, hence their wonder: “Is this me? But it can’t be so!”’

Jake also thinks this. Is this me? I wanted him to refuse to accept, in whatever way still available to him, that it is. But I don’t know if this is an insight I was trying to express, or just my own vague hope.

(The Milosz quotations are from Road-side Dog; the sub-heading is from Nick Cave.)

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