I’ve just finished a book this morning that messed with my tiny little mind. At first I blamed myself, as mentioned previously I’ll often look at a title/cover etc but not read the blurb, jumping in for an immersive experience with little guidance as to what to expect in my reading. I very much did this here, the title was one that immediately caught my attention and the art work on the cover is stunning (by the wonderful Lizzy Stewart who gave us ‘There’s a Tiger in the Garden’ – check it out if you have little readers to entertain).
I had a dramatic realisation approximately half way through (the very thing that messed with my head) but later instead of blaming this on my approach to the book I realised my reaction was just because the work between my hands is, well, bloody amazing and truly, deeply original.
‘The Word For Woman Is Wilderness’. You see right? How could I NOT want to read a book with a title like that?! It comes to us from author Abi Andrews, who shows huge amounts of talent at a young age, making it all the more exciting to see what else she will go on to produce.
The book isn’t exactly set out as a diary, it isn’t dated, but it does follow a journey where our young protagonist sets out to show she can live and experience wilderness just as the famed ‘Mountain Men’ throughout history have done, the matter of her sex is not something that should prevent this as so many seem to believe.
I am thinking about how the small autonomy of just being alone in public for a woman is also a right that needs to be claimed and kept on being claimed until it is a given.
Instead of day by day accounts the text is split into sections which range in size, some describing a moment of the journey, others a thought that is troubling her. Just as time is not linear these entries are episodic but not tightly structured to the timeline of her travels.
Setting off from her home in England and leaving behind parents who are not supportive of this decision, her aim is to reach Alaska, living in a place so vast as to feel truly alone and part of the natural world around her, using survival instincts to get by. With limited funds a decision is also made not to simply fly to Alaska and begin her journey there, but to work her way across the globe in whatever ways present themselves as the miles tick by (making me wonder if this is a ‘Road to Ithaca’ scenario). The people on her voyage bringing with them a whole host of new opinions and experiences that challenge her deeply.
Now, here is where I will explain my ‘book freak out’. Throughout the book so far I’d been reading things that deeply resonated with my own experiences. Granted, I have not experienced true wilderness but I have travelled and the experiences and reactions she had were uncomfortably similar. I then read a part of the book where she was working in a restaurant to raise some funds when the chef had pulled her into a walk in fridge and molested her. When he was called away he left her in there, shutting the door, a door that does not open from the inside. After the event she repeatedly tells herself that nothing really happened and that others suffer a lot worse, the girls and women who are actually attacked. The experience didn’t feel as if it would be judged significant enough by others, that she was just being silly no matter how deeply upset she was. ‘My god’ I thought, ‘this is uncanny’. In my late teens I worked in a pub/restaurant to try and raise money for a holiday with my friends. The chef was particularly horrid and often grabbed my wrist when I went into the kitchen, saying he was going to pull me into the back so I could ‘sort him out’. He would always say he was having a laugh, his voice just the right side of jocular if anybody heard, but his grip on my wrist was tight, I would try to yank it away and often be left with red marks from the pressure. One day he was being particularly touchy and I snapped at him. When I then went into our walk in fridge to get dessert for a customer, he ran behind and shut the door so I was locked in there. The lights go out and you’re trapped. After 5 minutes or so a lady who washed the dishes heard me shouting and let me out. So you can understand, her experiences on this journey were so very real to me. It was at this point I suddenly noticed she was being called Erin in the text. ‘Hang on a minute, she is called Abi!’ I actually said out loud. Reader, I thought I was reading a memoir/piece of travel writing, no no no, I looked at the front of the book and there it was clear as Day ‘The Word for Woman is Wilderness: A NOVEL’. It was like being sent into a tail spin, how could she write so precisely about these experiences and it be a novel? She MUST have done this journey, she MUST have just changed her name. I honestly could not get my head around it. After finishing the book I still do not know if Abi Andrews has made this journey, I don’t know if it really matters, her novel is excellent. The expansiveness of her writing, the incredible realness of it, make it masterful in my eyes. I have the possibility in the near future of going to an event to hear the author speak and I am almost in two minds as to whether I want the answer to this question (I do, I always bloody do, in the end I’m the cat that curiosity killed).
Anyway, less about me and back to the book. This is an excellent read not only for the journey itself but also for the total immersion into Erin’s thoughts. She is young and sometimes naive but I found her endlessly likeable with her desire to challenge the patriarchal consensus and her openness to different thoughts and ways of life that she comes across, not always agreeing with other but always trying to think things through. Her thoughts jump constantly, one moment she will be discussing the Unabomber (somebody she repeatedly returns to) then in a blink of an eye she is considering the beads used in face wash. Science, feminism, philosophy, myth, as she wanders so does her mind on to as many different plains.
I found this novel to be thought provoking, written vividly like colours in a landscape, I was sad when I closed the last page and was no longer travelling with Erin as my companion. She set out and battled often with those who ‘projected vulnerability onto her’ and wanted to achieve the goal of being able to travel freely like a white man. I urge you to pick up this book to see a special journey unfold.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews £12.99 (Serpents Tail)
I’m intrigued to know dear reader, have you ever been hoodwinked and thought you were reading non fiction when it was fiction or vice versa? How did it affect the reading experience for you? Let us know in the comments below!
Also on Thursday the 8th of Feb competition time is finally here and our interview with Sara Barnard! Do not miss out!
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Until next time,