review page logo
Samantha Harvey
What made you want to write a novel from the point of view of a person with Alzheimer’s?
I think I became aware of Alzheimer’s originally when Iris Murdoch died of it, and I read John Bayley’s book. Something about the nature of Alzheimer’s grabbed me. No other physical illness taps into the big and difficult questions of life in quite the way Alzheimer’s does - time, aging, remembering, forgetting, relating, and so on.

Given how close it brushes with our sense of self, I was struck by how little enquiry there was into the actual experience of the disease, from the sufferer’s perspective. Does somebody with Alzheimer’s disappear as a person? Maybe to others, but surely not to themselves. So where do they go? How do they construct themselves as a person without a steady sense of time and place? And that big unknown area of experience seemed like a very rich and challenging place to go as a writer. It also allowed me the hope that after a point the disease is less terrible for the sufferer than it is for the people watching them suffer, and I wanted to explore that redemptive side of it too.
The deterioration of Jake’s memory and, to some extent, his personality, seems totally convincing. How did you research it – or did you rely largely on your imagination?
I researched widely, to get a picture of the disease and its structure and progression. There were a lot of facts I needed to know in order to progress Jake plausibly through those years of his life, and I really didn’t want to get it wrong. But once I had researched, then I imagined, and the imaginative leap was a significant part of the book. I had to get from those detached facts of the observer to the intimate experience of the sufferer, and research alone didn’t allow that.

In fact I came to find that state of confusion, unease and disorientation surprisingly accessible. I think it’s there in us all, in a less extreme form. I think that what makes Alzheimer’s so frightening and fascinating isn’t that it’s so alien to everyday life, but that it’s so close to it. Everybody ages, everybody forgets things, everybody suffers loss and loses logic at times. Everybody depends on memory to construct themselves as individuals, and yet for all of us the past is hazy, and a lot of what we remember we may have made up. So, the imaginative effort of the writing was less about searching another world and more about looking closer at this one.
The choice of Lincolnshire for the setting of the novel is unusual. What was it about the place that inspired you?
I’d been up to Lincolnshire a few times, and, when I was writing The Wilderness, we once happened to drive out onto the peat moors and I’d found them really beguiling, both bleak and magical. Looking back now I can see how that landscape mirrored my conception of Alzheimer’s and Jake’s story – bleak and magical at once. Gradually that landscape begun to creep in to the novel and it made sense. It was empty and forgotten and waiting for something to happen to it.
In many ways, Jake’s career as an architect – from his early brutalist constructions through to the damp utilitarianism of the prison – seems to reflect his personality as it is revealed: the well-meaning ideologue who never quite matches up. Was the floating glass box on the moors likewise an impossible fantasy?
I think so. The book settles on melancholy conclusions – that much of life is preoccupied with the aspiration to become something we can never be, and do things we can never do. For me this is far more interesting than depressing – i.e. that the skill is to accept who we are. Part of Jake’s redemption is in the loss of his crucifying ambitions, and in a way he does accept who he is, once he’s forgotten who he thought he should be. The glass house is entirely symbolic of that.
A book about this subject runs the risk of being sentimental or depressing. It is neither of those things and I wonder whether that possibility worried you when you were writing the novel?
It did worry me, yes. With every chapter I wrote, I was always thinking not depressing, not depressing. I generally don’t like depressing books, and I love poignant and affecting books, so it was the latter I wanted to write.

The first person perspective made that possible I think. Alzheimer’s becomes intolerable to witness when the sufferer is far gone along the road and doesn’t connect with the outer world much at all, and it’s hard to find any upward, heartening way of seeing that. But at that point, for the sufferer themselves, inner worlds might well open up; they don’t know fully what they’ve lost, or the extent of their limits, so there’s room for those inner worlds to contain some consolation, maybe even joy at times.
What books would you like to see on the shelf next to THE WILDERNESS?
Well, at the risk of dwarfing The Wilderness, I would like it to be in the company of, say, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Disgrace by Coetzee, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch, and Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes.
Are you writing anything at the moment? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I’m writing a new novel, but it’s in its early, faltering stages so I won’t say too much. But it’s quite different to The Wilderness, and a more straightforward and linear narrative. I thought that would make it easier, but simplicity is proving a hard thing to achieve . . .
Samantha Harvey

Recommend this site to a friend

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter