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Yearning for Nature in Kathryn Bromwich’s “At the Edge of the Woods”

Yearning for Nature in Kathryn Bromwich’s “At the Edge of the Woods”

  • Our review of Kathryn Bromwich's debut novel, "At the Edge of the Woods."

The pandemic forced everyone indoors, but while some spent their quarantine staring longingly out the window, growing stir crazy and desperate for human contact, others heaved a sigh of relief, secretly grateful for an excuse to shut out our chaotic, complicated society. Author and journalist Kathryn Bromwich clearly sympathizes with both views. In fact, Bromwich’s debut novel feels in some ways like a twist on the nascent genre that can only be called “the quarantine novel.”

At the Edge of the Woods reads like a tortured love letter to the natural world, in particular the hills of northern Italy, where the author spent her childhood. We meet our heroine, Laura Mantovani, shortly after she has moved into a country cabin on the outskirts of a conservative, Italian village. Tantalizing clues suggest the move was hasty and followed the traumatic collapse of relationships that she had once considered unbreakable. Laura scrapes by on a paltry income from tutoring local children and spends her days wandering in the woods alone, a practice that elicits whispers and critical glances from the villagers but which endows Laura with increasing confidence, a quality that had shrunken in her previous life. She begins a secret affair with Vincenzo, a waiter at a local restaurant, but their connection is tenuous and becomes strained when he demands to know about Laura’s husband, “the nobleman.” She replies, “There is nothing noble about him. He was an awful man, in the distant past, and I’m never going to see him again.”

By this point, we are overdue for some needed backstory and are rewarded by a flashback section that transports us to the final weeks of Laura’s relationship with her husband, a cold and mostly absent French aristocrat named Julien. With languid pacing and a narrative point of view that continues to hew closely to Laura, Bromwich depicts a beautiful, seaside estate in the south of France where Laura and two servants live in a state of fear, constantly dreading the appearance of Julien and finding their fears realized when he returns from a business trip and heaps verbal abuse on the entire household. He subjects Laura to the worst of it, calling her an “Italian fishwife” and “damaged goods” in an apparent judgment of past infertility. Worse, she learns from her closest friend that Julien is having an affair and will soon seek an annulment of their marriage. While Bromwich’s portrait of Julien comes across as a flat caricature of a terrible husband, Laura’s sense of imprisonment in their sprawling estate feels authentic and convincing. As the flashback moves toward her inevitable escape and flight by night across the Italian border, we are reminded that Bromwich wrote this book as a form of rebellion against the claustrophobia of long COVID and the feeling of being “trapped,” both indoors and inside her body.

In interviews, Bromwich readily admits that long COVID inspired a yearning for the freedom of nature that infuses At the Edge of the Woods. Her narrator experiences the isolated, mountain cabin as a place of respite, rather than a prison. The cabin doubles as a gateway through which Laura enters the expansive and otherworldly alpine landscape. “But,” Laura confesses, “there is less distinction, these days, between home and wilderness.” Her delight in nature intensifies to the point of rapture: 

“…at the edge of town I breathe deeply, leaving behind civilization and being welcomed once again into the mountain’s cold and mighty embrace. I have no further need for the village or its inhabitants: I seem to have passed over into—somewhere I am no longer beholden to the chains and responsibilities of man, but to the perfect harmony of the natural world, where everything has its place, and no rock or broken twig is without purpose.”

The boundary between her body and nature begins to break down. As Laura loses her grip on reality, we recall Bromwich’s characterization of her novel as “turning inwards rather than outwards.” The final chapters of the book reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Shirley Jackson’s “The Tooth,” both stories of women who buck society’s norms even as their sanity unravels.

Laura’s constant roving in the forest comes to define her. In this respect, she fits into a motley catalog of literary characters ranging from Baudelaireian flâneurs—the commonly male archetype of the urban wanderer—to iconic, modernist women like Clarissa Dalloway and Jackson’s quietly defiant protagonists. Though the traditional values of society impinge on Laura in various ways, she achieves a complex freedom and joy in her new life in the countryside. While I was glad that she achieved peace in the aftermath of her traumatic marriage, I found myself disappointed by Laura’s inner guardedness. It could be that the suspense in this slow-burning fuse of a novel stems from the narrator’s unwillingness to reveal herself: neither to the villagers, nor to Vincenzo, nor even to herself. This suspense and the mystery of Laura’s persona made At the Edge of the Woods resemble a Gothic Romance intermixed with a loving transcendentalism that would make Ralph Waldo Emerson proud.

See Also

It’s uncommon for readers to enjoy access to such wide-ranging knowledge about an author’s personal and professional experiences. Kathryn Bromwich is all over the internet. As a culture writer and editor for The Guardian, she has interviewed a panoply of other authors and artists over the years (Michael Pollan and Perfume Genius, among others) and clearly learned from them. Her conversation with Pollan touched on Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a critically acclaimed ode to the unsung intelligence of nature that should be mentioned in the same breath as At the Edge of the Woods.

The book offers much to appreciate, even to revel in; the narrator’s passion for the environment overflows the banks of this novel and carries us, if we let it, into Laura’s own little universe. Casual readers, especially nature lovers, will value the book on its own merits. But for others, such as myself, who feel puzzled or even frustrated by Laura’s paranoia and social anxiety, I recommend supplementing the novel with a personal essay by the author that appeared in The Guardian in 2020. The essay, titled “How Long Covid Forced Me To Confront My Past And My Identity,” unflinchingly examines the ways that Bromwich’s life has been affected by disability and perceived difference. My view of the author and her debut novel were forever changed by the essay, which I would describe as a sermon on vulnerability. Having read it, I immediately felt more generous toward Bromwich’s protagonist, more willing to tolerate her intense preoccupation with plant life and creatures of the forest, a preoccupation that reads in hindsight like a learned aversion to the most dangerous beast on earth: human beings. This is a novel about the aftermath of trauma, and the mystical places that become available to us when we turn away from society. Laura creates a safe space for herself out of necessity, and many readers will understand this instinct all too well.

At the Edge of the Woods
By Kathryn Bromwich
Two Dollar Radio
Published June 6, 2023

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