I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
One of the major problems with literary awards, especially those that take place overseas, is that they tend to be winner-take-all propositions in which the champions, riding high on their recent laurels, come sweeping across the Atlantic ready to reap the benefits of the newfound attention being paid to them by the American market. And while this often signals a boon for the victor, only later will the others—the truly lucky ones—slink over, forced, however appropriately, to trudge about in the shadow of their Man Booker or Costa Prize Winning forebears, and by this time, unless there’s the potential for contention—think the 2008 Booker White Tiger/Northern Clemency debate—whatever excitement their accolades might have garnered for them in the American press has dissipated. No one gives a welcome parade for the runner-up.
Thus, despite having been a finalist for the Booker, Orange, Guardian First Book and Betty Trask Prizes, it is unheralded and in the gigantic shadows cast by Hilary Mantle’s all-conquering, historical epic Wolf Hall and Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar, that Samantha Harvey and her debut novel, The Wilderness, are poised to enter the American literary scene. Unlike its baroque counterparts, The Wilderness is a subtle, a quiet book whose American cover—a tea cup set amongst a row of mossy stone crags—gives little evidence as to the masterpiece lying within it.
From The Wilderness’s bravura opening, recounted from the navigation seat of an old bi-plane soaring to dizzying heights, Harvey outlines the trajectory of all that is to follow:
In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eyes on the ground below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all. Now he seeks out miniatures with the hope of finding comfort in them.
This is a novel heavy with the exploration of the minute, seemingly innocuous and uneventful moments that pass us by while we are busy waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Detail, and the flourishes of it, abound in The Wilderness. There is no minimalism here. Harvey is a writer unafraid of prose, one willing to write in a manner reminiscent of early Henry James, yet her sentences lack the attention to showmanship that occasionally superseded and hindered James’s equally obtuse narratives, and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Harvey might be the best pure English language stylist to arrive on American shores since John Banville, whose 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea, The Wilderness will at times recall.
Ultimately Harvey’s decision to revel in the small is a wise one, for it is only through exactitude and attention to minutia that it is possible for The Wilderness’ third-person narration, which remains firmly grounded in the tenets of psychological realism, to recount the life of Jacob (Jake) Jameson, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. In a way, Jake, a widower with an alcoholic son in prison for larceny, is a Job-like character, though one who lacks a God capable of restoring all His whim has seen fit to take away. The son of an Austrian Jewish mother who emigrated to England before the Second World War, Jake is an architect and a pragmatist both in love with and haunted by the theory entropy, with the need to construct, to build something in order that he might make his mark on the world, leave tangible evidence as to his presence on earth. He is obsessed with the “lack,” by the notion that he, too, will ultimately disappear the way his mother’s family did and that, when he is gone, there will be no one left to remember him.
Because of the nature of its protagonist, The Wilderness is concerned less with plot than with how to communicate the story of Jake’s life through the ever shifting and mutating memories that flash through his mind. These memories constantly fade in and out of focus, and Harvey’s play with perception and the subversion of it is akin to the way a doctor might purposefully impair one’s vision when checking for flaws in eyesight. What appears at one moment as incontrovertible fact is later shrouded in uncertainty. What seems as though it must, for all logical purposes, be the rambles of an atrophying mind, is later substantiated. In the end, our truths come only from the pieces we are able to assemble and corroborate from the brief anecdotes and phrases offered by those once close and now nearly forgotten friends who lay on the periphery of Jake’s world.
Entropy, or the idea of it, is central to Harvey’s narrative. No matter how many things we build in a lifetime “nature’s fingers unpick as if trying to leave things as they would be if humans never existed.” Harvey’s world is a fatalistic one, a place where, thinks Jake, “One must always fight back, not in the hopes of winning but just to delay the moment of losing.” For Jake, “it is not the happiness of a memory that he is looking for, it is the memory itself; the taste and touch of it, and the proof it brings of himself,” yet, even in his dementia, he understands that it is memory that holds the power “to make a shattered dream come true.” His need is to manage somehow to retain his possession of these streams of stories—his story—the “myth upon myth, tangling with myth, myth becoming fact, fact becoming fiction,” because without them, there is nothing to legitimize him, and all he desires is “to appropriate a place before leaving, just to affirm that it was indeed him leaving, and not him being expelled.” Because, even when everything is unraveling, we still possess the distinctly human desire to be in control.
The Wilderness is a Russian doll of themes and tropes, as Harvey concerns herself not only with the story but also with the metaphysical essence of self, with construction of religion, human morality, death and love in both its mythological and cruelly human nature. The image of Jake as architect continually reappears throughout The Wilderness, as he is someone who, both metaphorically and figuratively, is obsessed with the duality between creation and destruction, “A see-saw, a tide, life, death, poetically tilting from one pole to the other. And yet this so-called poetry has created nothing, or little, he can now put his name to.” For Harvey, memory, the illusion of the truth we create, is a nebulous thing, and the stories told, the religions, traditions and customs practiced are all, in their own way, nothing more than an overt way to define the self. Still, what Harvey seems most concerned with is not the building of the mythology, but with the deconstruction of it, with examining what happens when the illusion falls apart, when the same mind that has been integral to the conception of one’s own space in the world rebels and no longer will allow one to linger in the comfort of that created world.
Moreover, Harvey should not only be applauded for her ability to subtly espouse a philosophy of life but also for the way she constructs The Wilderness, which does not simply start sharply and then fall into disarray as Jake’s brain unravels, but instead possesses a beautiful fluidity; scenes bleed back into themselves, shift and morph, yet all the while Harvey maintains such control of the narrative that, even in the most opaque of moments, (and there are many places where a lesser writer would have lost the reader completely) one is confident they will reemerge from the depth and darkness of the forest to rediscover the path they strayed from not so long ago. All events, no matter how large or small, how clear or opaque, feel completely organic, as though they can only happen, must only happen at this particular moment in time. For Harvey presents characters trapped inside cages of their own making, ones whose bars result from all of the little, seemingly innocuous decisions compiled over the course of a lifetime.
One must, however, be forewarned that The Wilderness is not a book to be taken on lightly. It challenges the reader, makes demands of them and requires a significant investment of both emotion and attention for one to truly appreciate all that Harvey has managed to pull off here. And because of this, the most fulfilling aspects of The Wilderness also tend to be its most haunting. The moments when the reader finally makes the connections, connects the dots between the odd assortment of details—a zoo, a cherry tree, a yellow dress, a glass house— that pepper the book and that eventually come together to create a poignant, heartbreaking and mesmerizingly beautiful portrait of a man desperately trying to reclaim his sense of self are, literally, breathtaking.
In The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey shows us, in the truest sense, what it means to be human, to live, to love and to lose. How to, as Jake muses, “be small.” To understand “that an individual is an extremely small thing of small pursuits, that the world is sometimes background, sometimes foreground, depending on how big one feels but inevitably… one is small whether one feels it or not.” It is a novel about how each breath is, unromantically, one exhalation closer to the grave, and that our choices for nostalgia, “that last refuge of the old,” as Jake terms it, define a present need in us and uncover, through our melancholy reflection, that which we crave presently. It is about how to truly be alone in the world and at the same time a celebration of the many levels of human relationship. It is, quite succinctly, a true piece of great art.