From the comments I’ve seen online Samantha Harvey’s debut novel chronicling the downward spiral of a man with Alzheimer’s appears to be the most difficult of the shortlist reads. It was certainly the one with the least appeal to me. So I took it with me on a recent business trip, the intention being that I would have to read it as there was nothing else in my bag. And so on Tuesday as the 17:20 pulled out from Birmingham New Street, I began.
Two-and-a-half hours later, it was all change at Carlisle and I had managed a paltry 80 pages. I was confused – who were the people populating these pages – Eleanor, Joy, Alice, Helen, Sara, Henry et al? They’re Jake’s people only Jake is losing them to the mish-mash in his brain. His synapses are no longer sparking as they should and as he seeks to cling onto his history, his memories jump from one to another, mixing things as they go, making the narrative disjointed, confusing and unreliable.
I recognised that this readerly confusion is intended, designed to ellicit empathetic feelings towards Jake. I was doubtful, however, whether I could handle this for another 250 pages and I did not pick up the book again for another 3 days. Having hummed and hahhed, I decided to put faith in this year’s Orange prize judges. This was book number 5 and there hasn’t been a bad book in the previous 4. By extension then this wouldn’t be either.
I’m glad I persevered because somewhere between pages 150-180 the readerly fog clears. Memories are still juggled but episodes are described in more detail. There is more dialogue. I became familiar with Jake’s life and so could build up the picture even when Jake could not. I found my bearings and by so doing, appreciated all the more Jake’s desperate struggle to keep a hold of his life – one, which when the details emerge, appears to have been littered with conflict and tragedy. Not all that happy or successful but still his – unfortunately, not his for the keeping.
While Jake is undoubtedly centre stage, the supporting cast receives plenty of the limelight: his Jewish mother Sara; his Christian wife Helen; his beloved daughter Alice, the golden girl Joy, and let’s not forget, in the words of the author, poor Eleanor. These characters add plenty of substance: religious conflict within a marriage, love within and outwith a marriage, the sometimes obsessive love of parenthood, life without love at all.
Jake also muses on his career as an architect and the glorious freedom of expression that was enabled by concrete, a new substance when he was designing and building in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He laments that most of his buildings have now been demolished, his life achievements have disappeared. It’s an obvious metaphor for the inexorable destruction in his brain.
As the unavoidable ending approaches, the narrative becomes more immediate. The past is less important for it is now lost. The full impact of this hits in an unexpected way during the final two paragraphs. I’m still reeling.