The Wildlands by Abby Geni
Published by Counterpoint, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Abby Geni’s first novel, The Lightkeepers, was my book of the year in 2018. A few years prior, I thoroughly enjoyed her collection of short stories, The Last Animal. Needless to say, I entered this with a daunting mix of excitement and nerves. Thankfully, it stood up to my own high expectations, cementing Geni’s place as one of my favourite authors.
In The Wildlands, we follow four siblings, their mother long since dead. When their farm is destroyed and their father killed by a Category Five tornado, they must scrape by in a cramped trailer under the care of eldest sister, Darlene. Tucker, the only boy, struggles to cope with their loses, and flees soon after. Three years later, he resurfaces, badly injured during an act of eco-terrorism that saw him detonate a bomb in a cosmetics factory known to test on animals. Enlisting the help of youngest sibling, Cora, the two go on the run. With Tucker determined to bring Cora round to his extremist ways, and Darlene determined to find and bring her home, we begin to build towards an inevitably tragic conclusion.
The thing to love most about this book is its characters. They are all distinct and richly drawn; complex, flawed, and utterly believable. My heart was so taken by Darlene. Forced to grow up beyond her years, under constant pressure, and largely shunned by her community (who judge her for selling the family’s story to the press in order to make the money they needed to survive), we realise just how much she has sacrificed and suffered for the good of her siblings. Tucker, too, is a fascinating character. Through him, Geni examines the dichotomy between action and intent. Few would discourage Tucker’s desire to end animal cruelty and put humans in their place, but his increasingly violent means are never glorified. To present a character who is at once both sympathetic and damnable takes true writerly skill and narrative depth, but Geni pulls it off with aplomb.
I also noted some subtle though brilliant commentary on the pervasive quality of toxic masculinity. It’s no surprise that Tucker, the only boy, is driven to violence and rage by his unchecked emotion, sitting in stark contrast with his three sisters’ reactions. Once nine-year-old Cora is taken under his wing, he cuts her hair short, dresses her in boys’ clothes, and gives her a false name, as though her identity, and very femininity, are literally being consumed by his influence. Ostensibly, this is a means for them to avoid police detection, and a game of make believe that Cora initially finds fun. As the behaviour she finds herself drawn into becomes increasingly violent and unsettling, however, she becomes confused as to who or what she should be, wrestling with her two selves. Soon, she is eager to reject her boyish alter-ego, and the dangerous world it is forced to inhabit.
As with The Lightkeepers, I loved the thread in here about the power of storytelling, and the way we use it to protect ourselves from ugly truths. In this case, Tucker recounts his and Cora’s actions to his little sister, painting them as heroes, using the wonder of a good story to manipulate her into carrying out deeds she would otherwise abhor.
There is a very brief correlation drawn by one of the characters between bodily mutilation and a damaged psyche. In general, the ‘bad on the outside = bad on the inside’ trope is not good, but in this case, it felt like a genuine reaction from the character that made sense given context that I don’t want to spoil – rather than any internalised prejudice. I just wanted to flag it up quickly, since it’s a thematic device that irks me when handled poorly.
The prose itself is lovely, without ever feeling overdone. A sense of time and place are evoked incredibly well, the progression of summer and its mounting heat reflected in the palpable swell of tension as we move towards an unforgettable climax. The sense of conclusion was also incredibly satisfying, from a narrative and thematic standpoint. In it, Geni explores the kind of relationship we could have with nature, embracing necessary evils to work towards something better.
All-in-all, I found this utterly enthralling. It’s a powerful look at the bond of siblings; a searing critique of man’s false sense of power over nature; and an exploration of the animal instincts in us all to both lash out when we no longer understand our place in the world, and to protect the ones we love.