Lauren Groff’s early fiction was concerned with the ways in which stories from the past lie partially visible beneath the surface of the present, threatening to erupt and disrupt. After the breakthrough success of her third novel, Fates and Furies in 2015, her perspective shifted; her follow-up, Matrix, was set firmly in a distant past – a 12th-century English convent – but told a story shot through with resonances for a modern world.
Her new novel shares much common ground with its immediate predecessor. Like Matrix, it tells the story of a young woman, born an outsider in a turbulent age, fiercely determined to survive in the face of pitiless forces arrayed against her. But where Matrix considered the power of community, The Vaster Wilds – set in the new world in the early years of the 17th century – deals with its failure. The heroine, a young woman who is “but sixteen or seventeen or perhaps eighteen years of age”, has fled the English settlement at Jamestown to undertake a perilous journey north through a hostile winter landscape, though the dangers she faces alone in the wilderness are no worse, she reasons, than those she has left behind. The settlement is under siege, its inhabitants dying of starvation, and everywhere she finds the same threat posed to women by men: “For even a good man was more deadly than the worst of bears”.
The reason for the girl’s precipitate flight is hinted at early on – she stops to scrub blood from her fingernails; a man sent in pursuit describes her as a “murderess” – but the exact nature of this “moment of rupture” is not revealed until the end. Fragments of the girl’s history return to her in the course of her journey; servant to a wealthy family in London, she has been brought to the new world on the whim of her mistress’s new husband. A dark-skinned foundling, she was given the name Lamentations in the poorhouse, but for most of the novel she is simply “the girl”. Names carry weight, she reflects at one point, because they are a way of imposing control, as the first man did in Paradise: “Name after name, Adam felt his dominion tipping into domination”. The parallel strikes her as significant in this new continent. “How, in coming to this country, her fellow Englishmen believed they were naming this place and this people for the first time, and how it conferred upon them dominion in this place.”
Though the girl’s journey away from civilisation prompts occasional interrogations of “the machinery of domination” and the strict biblical morality she has always known, it is more frequently characterised by epiphanies about the individual’s relationship with the natural world – a recurrent preoccupation of the author’s. As always, Groff’s prose is finely worked, with a poet’s eye for imagery (a porcupine walks “his bristles through the undergrowth with the weary pomp of a crowned prince”) and a visionary quality that recalls Matrix.
The greatest difficulty with The Vaster Wilds is that, in its concentration on the practical mechanics of survival, it can become achingly repetitive. The jacket copy calls it an “adventure story”, which feels optimistic; while there are moments of potential jeopardy in the girl’s rare brushes with people, these are never heightened enough to provide real drama. Instead, there is exhaustive detail about foraging, starting fires, building shelters, endless running. As a study of the human capacity to endure solitude and hardship, it offers insight, but it’s hard to escape a sense of being underwhelmed by the novel’s climax.
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