BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Wilderness’, Samantha Harvey

At 65 Jake is starting to lose his grip.  His wife has passed away and to add to the loss his mind seems to be eternally wandering.  Unable to fully focus, life seems less straight forward now than it ever has before.  Jake has Alzheimer’s.  The revelation, which appears early enough to avoid the reader’s confusion at the jumbled story progression, is neither tender nor shocking, simply understandable through the delicate character stucturing.  Jake, albeit flawed, is a likeable and relateable protagonist.  His complicated life story a mere reflection of the times.

As stated earlier, Jake has never had an easy life.  Born to a Jewish pre-Holocaust immigrant, Sara, who conceals her true identity from his anti-semite father.  Stuck in a loveless marriage, Sara has always really loved Rook – a fact Jake has always been aware of.  Rook is almost a father figure for Jake.  Having rushed into a marriage with devout Christian Helen, Jake manages to get Rooks virginal granddaughter Joy pregnant.  Joy immediately flees to America, but their bond is never broken.  Instead, Joy remains a constant through their secret letter writing.  Add into the mix dowby Eleanor who has always loved Jake, even declaring whilst childhood friends that she would be the one who ended up looking after him.

Before retirement and the Alzheimers took hold, Jake was an architect.  Succesful in London, he returned to the Moors to be near his mother after his father’s premature death.  With unflinching ambition, Jake rebuilds his career in his new location.   He builds a new home for him and Helen, as well as designing the new local prison – a concrete monster, much to Helen’s disgust.  At the same time, Jake is building a family – a son Henry and a daughter Alice.  But for a man bursting with ambition, are these achievements sufficient?

Jake also suffers with his identity – a secretive Jewish upbringing and an anti-semite father are not the easiest of combinations. Instrumental to his adulthood is the 1967 Six Day War.  As the fairly young State of Israel struggles to retain its own sense of being, equally Jake is torn between his emotions.  Feeling somewhat loyal to a race he doesn’t fully understand and a need to align with those around him, Jake is never sure where to turn.

“The Wilderness” is in many ways just a compellingly accurate depiction of Alzheimer’s.  Yet in between the lines, the story runs much deeper.  In losing his sense of self and his identity, Harvey relates Jake’s disease with the changing Jewish race.  Having been uprooted during the Holocaust, many Jews lost their central religious belief yet still feel loyal to their racial background.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jeremy Williams

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