Brigid Delaney’s 2014 debut novel, ‘Wild Things’, is a riveting read. The premise from the blurb - a group of well-to-do university boys haze a foreign student during a weekend away from the college dorm - suggested perhaps a salacious read, but within a few chapters I was fully immersed in this sophisticated, tense, and often foreboding thriller.
Delaney is a journalist for The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Guardian among others. Her bio also says she has worked as a lawyer. I would think both these professions put her in good standing to write on this topic; presumably Delaney has used material from recent events at St John’s College at Sydney University, and hazing rituals uncovered at Sydney’s Trinity Grammar boarding school which made headlines some years ago and spurned other works of fiction based on its alarming history of bullying. I would also hazard to suggest her knowledge of the type of private school personalities who enter the legal profession may also have influenced this novel, and it is telling that her two central characters, Toby and Ben, are both studying law at the fictional college St Anton’s. They are archetypal ‘big men on campus’: Ben, born to wealth and a boarding school veteran, and Toby, the handsome and smart country boy who ingratiates himself into Ben’s ‘old boys’ group by being sporty and charismatic. The novel opens with Ben and Toby’s clique, largely composed of the rowing and cricket team, travelling to a college property in the bush, where the intention is to drink, take drugs and get up to hijinks commonly regarded as ‘male bonding’. Delaney centres much of the plot around the relationship between Ben and Toby, in part to analyse the intensity of male friendship, but also to catalogue the decline of the friendship in parallel to the decline of the group after the fateful weekend trip:
‘Ben had become like another brother. By second year the new fresher girls had difficulty telling them apart. Toby had darker hair and was two inches shorter, but through playing the same sports, studying for the same degree, having the same friends and sleeping with the same girls they became indistinguishable. Not that Toby minded: when there were two of them, it made him feel stronger.’
Both have had casual relationships with the women in their social circle, and their complex attitudes towards women are really insightfully articulated by Delaney. She writes of Ben’s struggle to accept his desire towards the more ‘serious’ girls in the college: ‘But he felt the same way meeting the young Amnesty International women: maybe the worst are full of passionate intensity, but they are also doe-eyed and lovely, with mouthfuls of marvelous intentions. Five minutes with them and he felt inspired to actually do something with his law degree – to visit prisoners, to fight oppressive regimes, to one day appear at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, verbally eviscerating some fat war criminal’.
The casual way sex is undertaken in the plot, footnoted by both the male and female characters’ confusion regarding their feelings towards the notion of the ‘no strings hook up’, places this novel well and truly in the contemporary sphere. Delaney tackles this subject, as well as the way many women are waking up to the inequity in the hook up culture, candidly. I thought her reading of contempoirary culture, her incorporation of social media into the plot line, and her dialogue of the Gen Y characters was spot on. Her description of a university ball was painfully sharp:
'The boys would sit at the tables in their teams and packs and talk about girls and football and their older brothers. They’d get drunk and get pulled onto the dance floor before they remembered they didn’t know how to dance. So a girl with too-tanned skin dressed like a butterfly would dance around them while they stood swaying and shuffling, unsure where to place their hands'.
Small details lifted Delaney’s characterisations from the ordinary and from my experience growing up in one of Sydney’s more well-heeled suburbs and attending Sydney University, I smiled wryly at her apt analogy from Toby’s perspective of feeling a surge of energy, like when one is about to ski ‘down the black run’: only rich kids ever feel that way. Certainly, that’s how I thought the rich kids lived life as I watched from my public school distance, as far away as I could from the Rugby team thugs at university.
The central event of the plot is grim and to read this novel in entirety is rewarding but also emotionally demanding. Delaney makes her characters ask some big questions about morality, ethics, religion, sexuality and elitism:
‘Toby was aware (how could he not be) of the case of the cruise ship woman. Sex, a drug overdose on a ship, a group of men…Sometime in the night she died and they did nothing – they closed ranks, they vowed not to talk, despite immense moral and legal pressure. Did he want to be like those men?’
And while I would say that this is a very plot driven book, the writing is beautifully atmospheric and at times when Delaney is describing the ethereal landscape of the students lounging around the lovely college grounds, I felt there was a comparison to the dreamy quality of Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Virgin Suicides’:
'But outside nothing had changed. There were still girls sitting in a circle drinking wine from a thermos, haloed in wintry sunlight, dandelion pollen suspended in mid-air, the peacock strutting on the lawn, suddenly interested in the plants. The gardener was laughing and petting the peacock and the girls were laughing too and the pollen was falling'.
This is a fantastic novel, one which stayed with me for days after finishing, and I really look forward to reading more of Delaney’s work.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014