Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review: 'Wildlife' by Fiona Wood (No 8: YA)

Fiona Wood’s 2013 novel ‘Wildlife’ was recently awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia ‘Book of the Year’. It is a nicely crafted YA novel, narrated in first person from the perspective of two characters, sixteen year old Sibylla and Lou. Both girls attend Crowthorne Grammar, and both are about to embark on the school’s outdoor education camp for a whole term: an activity intended to give the city kids a taste of roughing it in the wilderness and finding independence away from parents and normal school routine. We begin the novel with the clever and generally shy Sibylla being roped by her godmother into modeling for an advertising campaign. She becomes the talk of the school and the action goes from there as Sibylla is thrown headfirst into the ‘cool group’ and her first romance with Ben, the school’s most popular guy. Sibylla is articulate and grounded from her upbringing by her sensible doctor mother, but of course she has all the usual worries of a sixteen year old: ‘My virginity does not feel like some wondrous thing I will one day bestow on a lucky boy; it’s more in the realm of something I need to get rid of, like braces, before my real life can begin’.
Fiona Wood - WildlifeLou is a more mysterious character, new to the school and regularly seeing the school counselor. Lou has recently lost her boyfriend to a fatal bike accident, and she’s looking for a fresh start, but still unwilling to ‘just forget’ the deep love she had for her ‘Fred’. In the novel, she pens him letters and speaks beautifully and honestly of her still raw grief:
‘But in reality, I’m stuck Fred. Stuck at stage-three grief, or is it four? Hating myself, and angry at you. Maybe there’s also a bit of five, or is it six, in the mix? Depressions. But no sign yet of six, or is it seven? Realisation. Testing New Reality. No. Just missing you’.
Supporting these protagonists is Sibylla’s best friend Holly who typifies the ‘frenemy’ figure; Sibylla’s childhood friend Michael, an unusual and clever boy; and Ben, Mr Nice Guy on the surface but fairly one dimensional as a boyfriend. Wood portrays the manipulative nature of Holly well, and she is a recognisable figure to any female. Michael is a bit more clichéd as the ‘Asperger’s style’ outsider, but he has a nicely drawn arc towards the end of the novel.
Wood explores more confronting issues than general in ‘Wildlife’ and I thought she dealt with sexuality very well from a mature teenager’s perspective. Her treatment of Lou also surpassed the cliché of the outsider, and I felt Lou’s grief was realistic and empathetic.
The language of ‘Wildlife’ is pitched well and is appropriately contemporary. Both Lou and Sibylla are very likeable and both have a wry sense of humour when describing the camp and their peers: ‘Our menstrual cycles are slowly converging. Six starting-to-overlap waves of PMS is a lot to deal with under one roof. God help us all when we’ve got PMS at the same time. We’ll have a genre leap from ‘coming of age’ to ‘schlock horror’. Hide the knives. I can see the crime-scene tape now’.
The best moments of the novel are the scenes where the characters venture out for their solitary overnight experience in the bush. The descriptions of their fear felt in the threatening landscape but also their appreciation of its peaceful beauty are lovely passages: ‘It was quiet but for my puffed breathing and a wheeling spray of rosellas. I got up, legs trembling and started looking around. There was a pond, and it was full of fresh water after all the rain…Black sun spots burnt into the red of my closed eyelids when I blinked. I filled my hat with water and put it back on.’ Other insights in the novel are references to literature, ‘I mean, hats off to Shakespeare, her certainly lays it on the line, talk about life lessons in the odd unhappy ending. It felt so theoretical with Romeo and Juliet, though, didn’t it? And a bit silly. Kind of avoidable. Too coincidental. So much swings on shitty timing. But, silly us, so much does swing on shitty timing. If you’d left a bit earlier. If you’d left a bit later. Stop it. Bite down. Stop biting.’ I thought the allusion to Iago with Holly’s character was a great touch.
My only concern with ‘Wildlife’ was that personally I found it hard at times to differentiate between Lou and Sibylla’s voices, and they were perhaps a bit too similar but that could just be my reading. I can certainly see why this novel won the award: it’s entertaining, relatable and very perceptive.  

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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