June 2, 2012


The Wilderness
by Samantha Harvey   
328 pages, Vintage Books

by Paul Harding   
191 pages, Windmill Books

Review by Marc Nash

What is literary fiction exactly? I'm told I write it, but to compare it to these two prize-winning literary fiction books, I am none the wiser. Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and The Wilderness, nominated for every literary prize going in Britain, won a Betty Trask first novel award.

Not very much happens in either book, as both deal with the slow swandive towards death and look back on lives lived, in which again, nothing much the ordinary foibles and frailties of mankind happened. Both books are beautifully written in terms of language and imagery. Both attempt to be philosophical as they consider the human condition, but both, despite adopting narrative conceits to try and set up such philosophical inquiries, actually fail to deliver any wider profundity about our species beyond the fates of their respective protagonists.

Tinkers has a man dying at home in his bed, surrounded by his family. He imagines the walls of the room he is in collapsing in on him in Chapter 1 and this leads to an expectation in me, the reader, that we are in for some wild distortions of his perception as he sinks towards eternal unconsciousness. No such luck. His recollections of life as a boy, the son of an itinerant tinker in the wilderness of Maine, proceed in very orderly narrative fashion. This is no less than a fictional memoir, for all its little flourishes of highly literary writing, such as his father's dealings with a hermit, his love of repairing clock mechanisms, or the portrayal of his epileptic fits and his wife's practical dealing with them and her shielding of the children from any real awareness.

Good as these set pieces are, the novel rambles beyond Chapter 1 and offers few other such tasty morsels throughout. For a man lying on his deathbed, I found it curious that the bulk of his recollections surrounded his own father, even if presumably he is about to rejoin him on the other side. His own mental instability and relationship ruptures are skimpily dealt with very late on in the novel. For a book about an itinerant, it didn't really deviate and wander off the beaten track an awful lot. Style over substance in this case did not quite sate my appetite, whetted by such a strong opening.

Wilderness sees a man casting back, or trying to cast back on his life, impeded by his descent into dementia. Fractured memories slip away, as he tries to glue them back together again. There is a hint of narrative being subverted, as memories are reconstituted but differing from their previous airing. But this is only lightly offered throughout as a framing mechanism. Again some of the writing is ravishingly beautiful, to match its bleak marshland of Lincolnshire, where the novel is set. "...her body lost to the blanket; he only knew her lap was there because the bible was resting on it, otherwise she was a swirl, a question mark, an open question".

Why this book didn't work for me was that the main character, who is losing his memory and identity, isn't really all that appealing. While I felt sympathy for his plight, I didn't really pity him, nor did I welcome gathering knowledge of the petty touchstones of his life. He is unfaithful to his wife and always wishing for his lost love. Yet he impugns his wife for her perfection, which "gets a bit wearing sometimes". He uprooted his family from London to return to his childhood landscape, the wilderness of Lincolnshire, with his perpetually unrealised dream of building them a house made entirely of glass. If he is eternally dissatisfied with life and the state of things, it is entirely his own fault. He is not a man who sees anything through.

So two books about looking back on really rather small, unremarkable lives, framed in such a way as to set them up as considerably larger than they in fact turn out to be. I think if one is to offer up the consideration of a life in such a portentous way, then something really rather daring has to be done with the narrative structure and particularly that part played by time and how that impacts on memory. I felt both books in their different ways foundered upon this snag. Both ultimately served up rather linear stories of a life, even though "Wilderness" ought to have fractured and dismantled any such linearity through its conceit of failing, elusive memory. Literary fiction as beautiful, atmospheric writing I don't believe is enough. It has to deal in narrative form that best services its material and make the reading experience an interactive one, rather one that just calls for the reader to lie back and bask in the language. But then I have never won a literary prize.

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