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Review: The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey

From the inside cover of The Wilderness:

It’s Jake’s birthday.  He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life – his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions.  Now he is in his early sixties, and he isn’t quite the man he used to be.  He has lost his wife, his son is in prison, and he is about to lose his past.  Jake has Alzheimer’s.

This unusual novel, narrated by a man who is steadily losing his grip on reality, is a remarkable journey through the human mind and memory.  I’ve never known anyone with Alzheimer’s, as it thankfully doesn’t run in my family (or they die too young), but if I had to guess what it would be like, this novel is it.  Jake’s reality comes and goes; he finds his mind a total blank at times but usually he is just confused.  He can’t remember if his daughter is alive or dead, why he is visiting this man in jail (his son), or who the woman sleeping next to him is, except in brief moments of clarity.  He remembers his younger life the best and often has flashbacks to himself as a newlywed, in love with his wife, a successful architect, a new father.  He can’t decide what is real and what he has imagined, or why some memories have significance and others don’t.  In short, he is confused.

I’m not sure how I feel about this book.  I wanted to love it more than I did, but I think it was too scary for me.  I felt sorry for Jake and I just felt that the inevitability of his fate outweighed the beauty of the life that he had lived.  It is powerful and it is moving and I suspect it has changed the way I will think about elderly people forever, but it’s also scary and depressing.  This is the undeniable truth about what will happen to many of us if we live to be Jake’s age.  He has lived a successful, mostly happy life, which he can piece together and remember gladly, but now he is losing that ability before he has even died.  He boils the coffeepot dry, he can’t remember if he is supposed to eat eggshells, he forgets that he’s completed some part of therapy five minutes after it’s happened, and he doesn’t even know if his daughter is alive because he’s just remembered her older, and laughing, but at the same time he remembers her dead.

I do think that this is one of those important books that can open our minds to the suffering of others, one of those books that we should all read and think about.  It reveals the wilderness that our brains can become as they lose so much in old age.  I’m not going to lie though because it is heartbreaking and it is tough to read.  It’s a worthy, worthy book, but it will make you cry.

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