Lauren Groff’s new novel, The Vaster Wilds, is supposed to make you feel cold, hungry, thirsty, nauseated, sore, febrile, scared, awed, appalled, relieved, confused, hopeful, and tired of it all. The sensations are better effected than the emotions, which is the other way round from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a novel cited by Lauren Groff as a help in the writing of this one. Defoe is good at despair and hope, loneliness and the relief of friendship, where The Vaster Wilds is more evocative when it describes touch, taste, pain, and disorientation. Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a survival story whose protagonist is mostly isolated. She is a teenage girl who has run away from Jamestown during the Starving Time in the winter of 1609–1610, travelling north with a few stolen supplies and her schooling that warns her not to look back, lest she turn into a pillar of salt. Nonetheless there are several flashbacks showing the girl, named Lamentations, coming from an English poorhouse to the care of her mistress, whose second husband takes them to the New World and to this devastated colony. The mistress called her Zed after a recently deceased pet monkey, but Groff refers to her as “the girl,” and very often “she,” which for such an isolated heroine can be used as often as a first person narrator uses “I.” Not that she’s quite alone now. One could say, to avoid saying too much, that the girl caused a bit of a scene right before she slipped through the palisade and into the wilderness, so the colonists have sent a man with a musket to get her. There is also a Spanish Jesuit gone native who now calls himself Sanctus Ioannes Cavae Arboris, and Native Americans of the Powhatan and Piscataway tribes. But the story is about the arduous means of merely living in wild exile, never mind defending oneself: not just gathering firewood and washing in the river, but setting a cup under a dripping branch, slicing slivers off a frozen fish, plunging a hand into a beehive, come what stings may, for honey to eat and to use as a salve on bruises and cuts.
The narrative voice of The Vaster Wilds is an effective compromise, pretty much contemporary, but with some archaic syntax, as in “he had lifted with one hand the creeping fearful soldier by his hair” and “she watched in wonder the pulsing stars above.” As for the dialogue, Groff has a relish for Elizabethan insult, so she has the mistress’s son Kit and his friends, the cook, and then voices that speak to the girl from the sky call her “sooty mammet,” “collop of mince,” “toothsome grub,” “tawny bead,” “wicked sprite,” etc. In Groff’s language things are vivid and palpable, as when the girl drinks some near-frozen water and “the cold sliced down the center of her like the tip of a knife,” or when the tears come: “O do not cry, girl, she told herself sternly upon the astonishment of this gift, but still the world went hot and liquid in her eyes.” She remembers the journey across the Atlantic, the approaching land as “a darkness scribbled against the horizon that grew green as they neared.” Such imagery becomes more apparently purposeful later in the novel, as the girl’s body fails and the brief sights become metaphysical visions. The following, enlisted as a simile to the “intricate geometry that lived beneath the surface of the material world,” seems out of place:
This is lovely stuff that would have served well in the longer memories of the mistress’s home, but Groff wants to use it for one of the girl’s many epiphanies (I wonder if it wasn’t repurposed). The girl has just looked a fish in the eye, which allows her to see that “intricate geometry” everywhere, and the striking moment is like the strike of the apprentice’s hammer. “After this moment,” we are told, “she found herself ever so slightly changed.”
The figure of Lot’s wife is replaced by those of Orpheus and Eurydice, as the girl, walking through a forest, remembers a beloved Dutch glassblower boy from the ship, “imagining him just there behind her.” Further along, other lessons from Sunday school are blasted away by the elements, and replaced by intimations of other theologies. The turn of the novel towards these ideas is intriguing, like a very slow plot twist. There is much to be learned from the Native Americans, and Groff must intermittently turn teacher so that those things the girl misses do not elude us—“these trees, too, had been planted by the gardeners of this place.” The girl who had replaced a monkey, whom Kit called his mother’s parrot, who feels “a powerful ripple of sympathy” for a bear, seems liable to change from a who to a what, or something for which we have no word. But as long as she’s suffering, we don’t lose track of her as a fellow human. Again, the suffering on offer is mostly physical, because Groff, needing to get things moving again, doesn’t care to stay on sentiments. But there is one odd outburst of feeling that lingers in memory if not across the page, an omniscient moment and a preview of a more oratory mode Groff will turn to later. The forest and whatever food it holds has frozen over; the girl marvels at the illuminated scene, then despairs. In a novel with a lot of camping, it’s the touch of camp that stays with us: “Morose, morose, and her eyes wept without her knowing.”
The Vaster Wilds
By Lauren Groff
Published September 12, 2023
Kazuo Robinson is a writer based in New York. His reviews have been published by or are forthcoming with The Adroit Journal, Cleveland Review of Books, The Oxonian Review, and The Millions. He maintains a Substack at kazuorobinson.substack.com where he writes about fiction.