The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey

The BookDepository

Short listed for the Orange Prize 2009

The Wilderness is written through the eyes of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. I shouldn’t like this book, as on the surface the plot is identical to Gilead – old man looking back at his life in snippets, revealing the wisdom he has learnt, but this book is in a league above Gilead. It captured my heart from the very first sentence:

In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with stiking buoyancy to the surface.

When reading a book I note down quotes which may be suitable for my review. After noting down five different quotes within the first few pages I realised this was an exceptional book, and the bar for quote-quality was raised significantly higher!

This book is heart-breakingly sad. The central character is Jake, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, who is struggling to remember the details of his life. He can remember certain things as vivdly as when he was there, but others things, especially those that have happened recently are very elusive. As the book progresses his condition deteriorates, and even the most important things in his life fail to come to him:

She sits at the kitchen table beating eggs. Embarrassing, but he cannot remember her name. So desperately embarrassing because he sleeps with her, he knows her, she is not a stranger.

The Wilderness really opened my eyes to the suffering of old people. They are subjected to embarrassing situations as their bodies begin to fail them, but their minds are just as alert  as they were when they were younger. I think one of the reasons that this affected me so much is that this situation is almost certainly going to happen to me, and everyone else I know. This isn’t about the suffering of war, which however shocking, is unlikely to directly affect me. Old age and it’s degrading loss of dignity is going to happen, and this realisation hit me with a shocking intensity.

I’m not sure I want to recommend this book to you, as it is so heart-breaking that it will proably make you cry. I was unsure if I could give my highest rating to a book which I struggle to recommend to people, but in the end the power of this book cannot be ignored. I couldn’t find any faults with it. It gripped me from beginning to end, and left me a changed person. My money for the Orange Prize 2009 is on this book.

Highly recommended.



Who do you think will win the Orange Prize 2009?

Have you read this book? Did it change your opinion of the elderly?

Do you recommend depressing books to other people?

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  1. Violet says:

    I swear I can read books dealing with any sad issue, absolutely anything, but not Alzheimer’s. Thats one thing that scares me.
    But I guess I should just get over my fear and give this one a try…

  2. Jackie says:

    Violet – I did find this really hard to read. Normally books deal with the carer, dealing with the suffering of the one they love. This book makes you feel so sorry for the person with the disease, and that is the first time I have really considered them. I had stupidly assumed that they didn’t really realise what was going on around them. I really hope that they don’t, but I have a feeling this book gives a more realistic picture of things. Scary.

  3. Sandy says:

    I’m going to have to buy this one, and not only read it myself, but share it with my mom. My grandmother died just over a year ago from Alzheimers. It shakes your soul to see what your loved ones go through when suffering from this disease. At first, my grandma was just like a little child, very sweet and giving, and very much like her original personality. But as the disease progressed, she became paranoid and upset…the slightest thing would freak her out. At the end of her life, the loss of dignity was unbearable. I am actually amazed this was written by someone suffering from Alzheimers…what an incredible feat! You don’t give out many fives, Jackie, and I will take it to heart!

  4. Alzheimer’s Disease is definitely a devastating illness. My first exposure to reading about it was with Still Alice (Genova) – excellent book. However, like you, I agree it is hard to recommend depressing books, so I have taken to viewing it from a writing perspective. If the author could make me love the characters and think of them as real (I still think about Alice) and make me feel a plethora of strong emotions – that’s the markings of an excellent book.

    Thank you for bring this one to my attention. This is the first time I’ve seen it. On the TBR List it goes!!!

  5. Jackie says:

    Sandy – Sorry if my wording was misleading – this book wasn’t written by an Alzheimer sufferer, but by a young woman from the perspective of a sufferer.

    I’m sorry to hear about your Grandma. It is a terrible illness, and I think this book may give you some insight into why she was paranoid and confused. It will probably bring back some terrible memories for you, and be even more difficult for you to read, but it really is very good. I’d love to know how accurate you think this is as you have had a much closer experience of the disease than I have.

  6. Jackie says:

    Thoughts of Joy – I’ve never heard of Still Alice, but I’m not sure I want to read another Alzheimer’s disease book so soon after this one – I’ll keep a note of it for the future.

    The characters in Wilderness are very real, and I’m sure you’d connect with them. I look forward to hearing your opinion of this one if you get hold of a copy.

  7. claire says:

    Of all the Orange shortlist books, this is the one with the most interesting premise to me and the one I most want to read, so seeing that you loved it, I’m even more excited!

  8. Wow! Great review, glad you loved it! The cover is amazing, and if the inside is good too then what would I have to loose!?!? I should look for this at Powell’s, I’m sure they’d have it.


  9. Jackie says:

    Claire – I was most interested in The Invention of Everything Else – which was one of the weakest ones I read – shows how bad I am at judging books by their covers!I hope that you enjoy reaing this one.

    Bethany – I love the cover too! I hope you find a copy, and it moves you as much as it moved me.

  10. Michele says:

    This sounds like a heart-breaker but a worthwhile one. I’ll keep my eyes open for it.

  11. Teddy says:

    Wonderful review Jackie! I put this on my TBR but don’t know if or when I would actually read it.

    Right now the wounds of alzheimer’s runs deep in my family. First my grandmother had it and then, recently my dad. Luckily, yes luckly he had another illness that took him fairly quickly. It was his wish for his mother and our wish for him. She lived for years with alzheimer’s and we witnessed the full degradation of the disease. Dad was spared for a lot of it.

    Note that I purposley did not capitalize alzheimer. I won’t giving any sign of respect.

  12. Jackie says:

    Teddy – I’m so sorry to hear that your family have suffered with this terrible disease. I think you’d find this book very distressing, and so I would leave reading it until the wounds have healed a little bit.

    I’d love to hear what you’d think of it though. I wonder whether it would be helpful for people who have had first hand experience of it, or just a terrible reminder.

  13. Peter Yexley says:

    A beacon of light for anyone with the slightest connection to Alzheimer’s disease

  14. Mon says:

    Wow, not a subject that would normally entice me, but good writing and a good story is what reading is all about. I’m going to add this to my wishlist. Thanks.

  15. This sounds amazing (I typically prefer sad books). I forgot if you have read Still Alice or not – if you have, how do you compare?


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