‘The Wilderness’ captures pain of Alzheimer’s

  Jacob Jameson has lost a lot. His once successful career as an architect is over. His son is in prison. His wife and daughter dead.
  Now Jake is losing the most precious thing he has left: a lifetime of memories.
  Author Samantha Harvey tackles the subject of dementia poignantly with her novel, “The Wilderness.” 
  Harvey takes an inventive approach, having 65-year-old Jake narrate “The Wilderness” while his mind deteriorates and he becomes increasingly confused and unfocused. This technique could have left the reader just as confused as Jake, but Harvey succeeds. “The Wilderness” captures the shame, fear and confusion that are the baggage of dementia.
  Jake isn’t totally alone. Eleanor, his childhood friend, compassionately takes care of him despite his cruel remarks, his wandering off and his dangerous forgetfulness.
  Jake also sees a doctor. “The fox-haired woman,” as he calls her, tries to explain Alzheimer’s disease to the mechanically inclined Jake, but as soon as she explains, he forgets. And as the disease progresses, he can barely remember where he is moment to moment.
  He sees bottles floating on the sea. Hundreds of bottles with messages inside. Today, or sometime this week, he went to see the fox-haired woman and talked about cells. In his brain are countless cells — countless, but not infinite. To say infinite would be reckless. Inside each cell a little piece of him is packed, and every time a cell dies a piece of him dies. His past is just an electric impulse. Static flashes on a petticoat. Gradually he is being scattered and lost — hundreds of unread messages floating out across the sea.
  Jake tries desperately to hold on to his memories. He’s ashamed of his mood swings and anger. He feels like he’s always apologizing, always sorry for something but usually not knowing what.
  As the fog of Alzheimer’s envelops Jake, images from his past become disjointed. Past becomes present, the present becomes past. Faces around him are unfamiliar. The dead are still alive. His thoughts are a confusing whirlpool of the real and imagined, and he’s drowning in an undertow of anguish.
  “The Wilderness” is an almost painful book to read. Harvey does not back away from the realities of the disease, but she also infuses the text with compassion. It’s a tangled story, but one that conveys the importance of dignity and respect for those we love, no matter what their affliction.

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