I first read this book a few years ago and I remember being impressed by how it was written from the perspective of someone with Alzheimer’s (the first book I’d read like this). Recently the book and its cover came into my mind again and, when I was browsing my local library, I came across it on the shelf. Having thought about it recently and one of my reading resolutions being to sometimes return to the more organic process of finding books on the library shelves, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reread this novel.
From the opening chapters of The Wilderness, we know that Jake has lost his wife, that his son is in prison, and today is his birthday. It also becomes clear that Jake has Alzheimer’s. The book moves between the past and present, handing us memories of when he first got married, when he was a child and of his mother, his son being born. As the book progresses, so does Jake’s Alzheimer’s: we see fragments of memories of a cherry tree and a yellow dress, Jake questioning why his son is in prison. What does the cherry tree and the yellow dress mean? What has happened to his daughter: is she dead, or did he visit her the other week?
Jake’s timeline and his memories are confused, which makes for a disorientating read. We’ll be told a recollection, only for those details to appear in a different context, a different place, with a different person a few chapters later. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out whether we’re in the past or present, or whether they are combined in this confusing mesh of memories. It’s a subtle and clever way to replicate Jake’s state of mind for the reader. In this way, reading this book is an active process: you have to work to keep up and keep track of what’s been said before.
It takes a skilful writer to recreate this feeling for the reader in a way that feels truthful. The novel as a whole is skilfully written, with the writing poetical in places with lovely turns of phrase.
For all the skill involved however, I am left wondering what direction the book went in and what the story and plot were. Was the book anything more than an exploration of memory’s deterioration? In the novel, sometimes we learn that what we’ve been told before isn’t true, so in some ways we finish the book not really knowing for certain much more than when we started, which can make for an unfulfilling read. But then again, this makes the story more heartbreaking – Jake doesn’t know what’s true and what’s not, what happened in his life, and doesn’t always know the difference between dream and reality, and so neither do we. And perhaps the lack of a solid, linear plot is the point. This mirrors Jake’s own sense of time, after all. There isn’t necessarily a mystery to be solved or an answer to be found by the end; the book is a way of giving a reader the experience of memory loss in the context of this man’s story. And while the novel is predominantly about memory, it’s also about family and belonging which I think is well explored throughout.
In terms of books about memory and Alzheimer’s I prefer The Night Guest which remains a book I think about often and still highly recommend. But The Wilderness is a skilful novel that deftly deals with a difficult subject, while fully and truthfully creating the protagonist’s experience in the reader.