By Fiona WoodYoung adult Pan Macmillan
Fiona Wood’s Wildlife is a vivacious, warm novel, set in the cloistered environment of a wilderness boarding school, where social media is banned and rugged outdoor exercise is mandatory.
Wood expertly weaves the lives of two first-person narrators. Shy, introspective Sibylla is unexpectedly propelled to the top of the social heap after she appears on a billboard as the face of a new perfume. New girl Lou avoids interacting with her peers, preferring to watch from the fringes and keep to herself: she is grieving the death of her boyfriend.
‘Top marks to Wood for a realistic portrayal of genuine, intelligent female lead characters who readers will truly barrack for and view as positive role models,’ writes the Age. And indeed, Lou (who appeared in Wood’s debut novel, Six Impossible Things) and Sibylla are nuanced, funny and hugely likable. The book is also beautifully structured, making the most of its isolated group setting and the obstacles and opportunities that presents.
Meanwhile, Lou slowly bonds with Sibylla, through their mutual friend Michael, an eccentric, kind outsider who calls it as he sees it and has no time for the artificial – making him a magnet for the cynical, grief-stricken Lou. Lou also draws the reader’s attention to the considerable cracks in the surface of Sibylla’s friendship with mean girl Holly, who has grabbed the opportunity of her friend’s newfound popularity to climb the social ladder, while kicking at those on the lower rungs.
‘Wildlife is a novel concerned with getting through, or over, things,’ writes Simmone Howell in Readings Monthly. She calls it ‘serious entertainment’.
It’s also a terrific look at friendship, popularity, peer pressure and the difference between what you want, and what others want for you.
Exploring the dynamics of female friendship and rivalry with nuance and sensitivity, Wildlife is a heart-warming and poignant book about love and loss that never turns maudlin nor reverts to teenage tropes.
Written in alternating chapters with the voices of a girl who goes through grief and a girl who discovers her burgeoning popularity, the characters are strong, memorable and filled with relatable flaws. The setting – at a rural private school camp – is believable, in the way it tests the inner courage of the protagonists.
Australians (and New Zealanders) write the best Young Adult fiction and have done so for years. America can keep its Hunger Games. We’ve got a proud tradition of realist YA literature that seers with authenticity and isn’t afraid of plain language around still bizarrely taboo subjects like teen sex and masturbation.
From the moment I started reading Wildlife I knew Wood was carrying on this proud tradition. The story switches between two narrative perspectives. There’s ‘ugly duckling’ long, lanky Sibylla who may or may not be ugly/beautiful, but who has just emerged into public interest after appearing on a billboard in a perfume ad. Interspersed in Sibylla’s first person narrative are journal entries written by a recently bereaved Lou, a character whose backstory follows on from Wood’s previous novel Six Impossible Things, though Wildlife is not strictly a sequel and stands alone.
Fiona Wood takes these two girls, both in powerful transitional phases of their lives (and who isn’t at 16?), and sends them on a term long ‘outward bound’ style school camp, of the sort many private schools are doing now. Even better, this is a co-ed school, and Sibylla may have just scored herself her very first boyfriend. But romance blooming in this intense environment could flourish, or it could grow a little bit twisted. Holly, Sibylla’s best ‘friend’ is there to do everything she can to heighten the drama and insinuate herself into the relationship. Lou stands back observing, nursing her own pain, until eventually she can bystand no longer.
Okay, there’s no real surprises in the plotting – school camps, first love, ugly duckling, recent bereavement – this is the standard fare of Young Adult fiction. As a TV writer and story consultant, Wood knows formulas exist for a reason, the magic comes from what you do inside these frameworks. Fiona Wood’s characters are authentic, and the dialogue is achingly familiar. ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ one boy says to Sibylla, after she confronts a group of guys about their misogynist banter. ‘You’re not even hot.’
Something I adore about this book is that it captures a very Australian adolescent experience. A lot of the characters feelings are invested into the landscape. ‘Smells like heartbreak,’ Lou journals. ‘Lemon-scented gums and eucalyptus.’ So many moments in this novel pinged for me: the observations of the landscape, emerging confusion around sexuality (once a relationship reaches a certain level can you ever go back to holding hands?), masturbation (high-fives to Wood for normalising that!), the sad mismatch of love-love and friend-love, and the dastardly best friend.
All the characters felt real to me, but I knew Holly. The queen of the backhanded compliment. The friend who gets a little too involved with your life, pulling strings like a puppet-master, jerking you around. The friend who stops talking to you over some slight, and just when you think you might be a little bit more relieved than sorry that the friendship seems to be over, reels you back in with a winning smile, or a perfectly timed “in joke”.
I almost got to the point where I couldn’t cope with the emotions any more, they were just too real and too familiar. But Wood handles the narrative masterfully, just when you can’t stand the status quo, she pushes the story to the next level.
Thematically the story is very much of its time. This is a novel about resilience – the lip service schools pay to it, the angst over the having or not having it, the wrong-thinking we indulge in to protect ourselves, and the journey towards the right-thinking we need to do in order to find happiness, fulfilment and meaning. Wood does not involve in any reverse-snobbery towards privileged kids heading out into the ‘wilderness’. Just as the threat of social exclusion rings horribly true, the growth the kids have during their term away is real and self-aware. Both Sibylla and Lou are more grateful, more connected and more mindful as a result of their time away. They have new improved coping mechanisms and are more in control of their choices. They have greater physical strength and endurance, which represents the strength they have identified and exercised within. This would be a great text to explore principles of positive psychology and wellbeing, a growing field of interest in Australian schools.
This is really excellent writing for young adults and Fiona Wood deserves a place beside other Australian realist YA great women writers like Melina Marchetta, Cath Crowley, Brigid Lowry and Maureen McCarthy.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist