By Simon Demetriou
‘…what woman has not, walking in the dark of the street or along a path deep in the countryside, sensed the brutal imaginings of a man watching her from his hidden place’. This question, which seems to make Lauren Groff’s character in The Vaster Wilds an everywoman, is amplified to a grave and magnificent enormity thanks to the novel’s astonishing depiction of a young woman driven to almost unimaginable extremes.
Groff’s last novel, Matrix, also deals with an extraordinary woman who defies the odds – in her case rejection and exile – but where the last novel tried to cram too much into a small space, The Vaster Wilds concentrates on a time span of mere days, and revels in drawing out the miracles of smallness.
Our protagonist, Lamentations – so named to remind her of the sin of having been born to a prostitute – finds herself on the run from an early 17th-century settlement in America, which has been struck by famine and disease. The child to which she was devoted is dead; the man she imagined sharing a future with is dead; and she has blood on her hands. Against this backdrop, Lamentations flees into the vaster wilds, knowing that of all the horrors she could imagine, ‘men would be worse’.
Right enough, as Lamentations struggles to keep moving and keep breathing, it is men who threaten her most, whether in the form of the sadist sent to kill her by the members of her former settlement, or the deranged Jesuit priest whose 40 years in the wilderness have entirely warped and corrupted his mind.
But the men aren’t what’s important here; it’s the illiterate servant girl and her luminosity of spirit that form the entire spine of this novel. All we get is her running, her scavenging for food, her memories of London, of the journey to America, of a life in which she has witnessed every kind of death and emerged with a ferocious will to live. This is a novel that supremely indulges moments of physical need: the depictions of Lamentations chipping a frozen fish out of some ice and eating it raw, or of making a shelter from a cave or a hollowed-out tree trunk are beautifully, viscerally rendered.
It is the visceral power of the language that drives the reader onwards with Lamentations, and the power of the language that forces the reader, at every moment, to feel the resonance of the character. This woman, whose hope of survival rests on a combination of her innate brilliance and the chance glimpses of a map over a rich man’s shoulder, becomes a harrowing and inspirational representation of female hope and hopelessness.