The Wilderness, By Samantha Harvey

"Quail Woods is is being disassembled, tree by tree": Jake, on his 60th birthday, is treated to a plane flight above his home territory. From his aerial vantage, he scans the prison where his son Henry is serving a sentence. By profession an architect, Jake built that prison. His wife, Helen, has died. These facts he knows. The rest of his world shifts and blurs; words fail him and all Jake craves is stable footing on the earth. This he will never again enjoy.

Quail Woods is being stripped of its trees; the mind of its rooted, branching memories, as the home world falls asunder. Four years later, Jake's family brings out the album. He has no memory of the faces: wife, son, daughter, lover are equal strangers. Someone points encouragingly to a snap: "This is the day you took the flight over Quail Woods." A wisp of recognition is swallowed in the vast quandary of the void.

Samantha Harvey's debut novel is a brave and intelligent crafting of narrative around narrative's ruins in the mind of a sufferer from Alzheimer's Disease. Without memory, self and story crumble, though for a while the losses made by the shrivelling brain can be circumvented. Harvey submerges the reader in a literary unfolding of dementia.

It's a hard read, not least because the reader becomes progressively more confused about the status of Jake's perceptions. Letters keep coming after Helen's death: are they from a secret lover? What is the relevance of the Bible made of skin or of Jake's Zionism? What happened to his daughter, Alice? What about Joy, his lover? And the woman he goes to bed with, Eleanor? The novel substitutes lyrical description for narrative certainty, a kind of lace-making around the holes in the weave. The language is never less than lyrical: as Jake and Eleanor make love, "Under the bed Joy's letters ghost into the darkness, and downstairs the unopened letters to Helen listen to the creak of the bed."

The Wilderness is structured on the conventions of the mystery: a gradual sifting through clues and hints to reveal an underlying truth. The quest is abortive, imponderable: the architect's mind is a house that unbuilds itself. Harvey relies on her copious poetic and imagistic gift to cover for narrative fruitlessness. If the result is slow and insubstantial, the novel is also a mesmerising work of patient compassion, bearing Jake deep into the vortex.

In Middlemarch George Eliot wrote of the necessary limits of empathy: if we could enter into all suffering "it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence". Somewhere towards that margin lies the world of Alzheimer's, Quail Woods without wood, words unwording and the soul unselved.

Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'The Eyrie' (Phoenix)

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