The Wilderness

  • Samantha Harvey
  • Jonathan Cape
  • 2009

Initially, Samantha Harvey’s debut novel The Wilderness is a confusing affair. Jake is 65, he has lost his wife and is starting to lose his mind. The latter being something his then alive wife has noted. Jake’s life has never been straight forward, therefore losing control of it is even less so. Jake has Alzheimer’s. This revelation appears early enough in the book to allow the reader time to digest what has gone before. That being a twisting a turning series of events, which without explanation would make no sense.

Life for Jake has never been easy. His mother, Sara, is a pre-Holocaust Jewish immigrant who conceals her religion as a result of his un-named but anti-semitic father. It appears the marriage was loveless, her true affections lying with Rook. Rook is an ever present figure in Jake’s life, as is Rook’s granddaughter Joy. Having had a shotgun marriage to devout Christian Helen, Jake soon impregnates a virginal Joy. Joy flees to America, but remains in constant contact with Jake. Frumpy Eleanor is the third woman in Jake’s life. She grew up with him and declared at a young age that she would end up looking after him. How right she was!

Jake is an architect. He willingly leaves London after his father’s death to return to the Moors, to be near his mother. His ambitions remain, always wishing to alter and build upon what is around him. He is not happy with a humble home, he has his heart set upon something bigger. He redesigns the local prison, creating a concrete monster that Helen abhors. With Helen, he builds a family. A son Henry is followed later by daughter Alice, but are these creations enough to satisfy a man’s hunger.

A thoroughly rewarding read.

Add into the mix, an identity issue. With several flashbacks to 1967 and Israel’s Six Day War, we witness a man torn whilst deciphering who he really is. Israel is relatively young and a small war has turned it from a peaceful nation to a warhorse. It’s power and goals are brought into question by those who surround him. He disputes with his mother and his wife as to how to react to the events. He is torn between a sense of loyalty to a race he barely understands and blending in with the opinion of those who surround him.

The Wilderness is on one level a complex book dealing with the complex issue of Alzheimer’s. However, delves deeper and I think the true story is about race and identity. Using the Jewish race as an example, Samantha Harvey explores lost identity and inexplicable loyalties.

Though difficult to get into at first, it is most definitely worth persisting. The Wilderness is a thoroughly rewarding read. Once you have got past the initial hesitations, it is extremely compelling.

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