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The Way She Reads

My thoughts on everything I read; good, bad and indifferent.
The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey My rating should be 3.5 stars, which seems to be the average rating for this book at the moment I'm writing this review.

This is the story of a man called Jacob or Jake. When we first join him he is in a small plan. His son, Henry, has given him a flight over the land where he lives as a birthday present. From the sky he sees the prison he designed where Henry is incarcerated at the time. Jacob’s thoughts aren’t completely coherent and there are a lot of things he is not entirely sure about.
It soon becomes clear that Jacob suffers from Alzheimer’s and during the rest of the story we follow him as both his memories and his present become ever more confused. We are witnesses to his irritation, fear and anger as the disease robs him of more and more of the things he knows. While he remembers certain events from his past the reader has no idea whether what he remembers actually happened or was only imagined. But then, neither does Jacob. And while initially he is aware of the fact that his memories are not necessarily to be trusted, it isn’t long before he loses that knowledge.

“He doesn’t know if he remembers or not; he doesn’t know the difference between what you remember and what you think you remember, or worse still, what others remember for you. He doesn’t know who he is.”

As the decease takes over more and more of Jacob’s brain, he continues to lose who he is, what is happening to him and who the people around him are until finally he has lost so much of himself that he appears to be at the start of his life rather than its end; without his memories his life surely hasn’t begun yet.

This was not an easy book to read, quite the opposite in fact. I always have a problem when reading a book about Alzheimer’s because this is a disease that scares me more than any other. This book was difficult for another reason as well though. In this story the reader rarely knows what is real and what isn’t because all of it is told from Jacob’s perspective. And Jacob’s is the most untrustworthy perspective possible.

In this book Alzheimer’s seems to be a character as well as and instead of something the main character suffers from.
I wonder if the author aims to make the reader experience the Alzheimer’s experience as she leaves them wondering whether they’re looking at the past or the present, reality or fantasy, no more certain of what is real and what isn’t then Jacob is.

As much as this book is about a man losing his memories, his past and slowly also himself to Alzheimer’s this is also a book about the unreliability of memories in general. Can they ever be trusted? Or does the passage of time and the way we want the world and our lives to be colour them to such an extent that we can never be entirely sure whether what we remember is actually what happened?

When it comes down to it, there are only a few memories to which Jacob keeps on returning. Is that because those were moments that stood out in his life, had special significance? Or is it because there is a certain randomness to what the brain retains and what just disappears into nothingness?

I can’t help feeling that I missed a lot of references in this book; that a lot of it went right over my head. There must have been more to all the mentions of religion, the human-skin bible, to Jacob being a Jew and Helen’s Christian fate than just mere mentions in a story. The duality between the fates is even reflected in the main character’s name; is he Jake or is he Jacob and does that matter, does it make a difference? However, if there is more to this story, I have no idea what that “more” could possibly be.

I can’t say I liked this book and I did have a hard time reading it, almost having to force myself to get back to it every time I put it down. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have forced myself if this wasn’t a book club read. Continuously feeling as if I was missing vital plot points made me feel a bit inadequate, a feeling I don’t enjoy and which may explain why this book was such hard work for me.
On the other hand, a book that leaves me with this much to wonder about can’t be all bad, may in fact even be good. Maybe it is just a case of this not being a book for me in which case I shouldn’t judge it too harshly.