Caught by the River

The Word For Woman is Wilderness

23rd February 2018

Nick Hayes reviews the debut novel from Abi Andrews, newly published by Serpent’s Tail 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a Jumanji book. Open it, and a wide wild world comes surging out of it, flooding the space you sit in with an energy and a vastness of scope that dazzles and daunts and exhilarates. And yet its voice is small, and gentle and quiet.

It tells the story of Erin, a nineteen year old girl from Midlands suburbia, who takes a boat to Iceland, Greenland and Alaska and then travels north to a solitary hut sunk in the Taiga pines. She is running to the words of Jack London, Chris McCandless, Henry Thoreau and Bear Grylls, that survivalist, libertarian, wild-man archetype that dominates the notion of how humans exist outside of central heating. And simultaneously, she is running from the world that they created.

Wildness in men is noble. It is Scott, Edmundson, Neil and Buzz, it is the solitary genius, fetishised solipsism, the hero on the mountain peak who observes the world and, from his singular standpoint, knows better. Virginia Woolf once said: Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” And the same can be said of the Wilderness – its grandeur is presented as a podium to prove the power of the man that has mastered it. But society views wildness in women differently: it is calm-down-dear hysteria; a transgression of the established order only remedied by public shaming, private beatings and historically, state-sanctioned lynchings.

Erin begins her journey wanting to prove to herself that this wild world is not restricted to her by her biology alone. She quotes Sylvia Plath: “I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night. She wants to reclaim the wild world for women, so she sets off with a camera in her bag, to film her journey, and make a documentary.

But the Wilderness is the least of it. It is the journey to it that is framed by danger. The musty breath of patriarchy is on her shoulder at every turn. There are shipmates who still think, as in ancient sea lore, that women are unlucky omens — to whom she replies: “A curse on you and your boat”. There are the two men on the ice who see two lone women, and assume they’re out of their depth, layering on a bit of mansplaining that is as presumptuous as it is void of fact. They too are dispatched: ‘They walked away, disappointed that their damsels had repudiated them…’ More often than not, Erin is able to slip out of these scenarios with a deftness learnt by women of all eras, a skill taught by necessity and experience. But not always. The heavy gaze of men she encounters on her way stirs memories of her first job, trapped in the meat fridge with her middle aged man-boss at the local restaurant: ‘the hand is clasped tight over your mouth so your whimpering is muffled. The other hand fumbles with your small breasts over the top of the polka-dot bra your mum bought you because you are starting to blossom now…’ And then, as she is hitching on the long road to Winnipeg, we meet the truck driver. Night falls as they drive, he misses the turning and she starts to worry. He pulls over and tries to claim her. They grapple, and she ends up falling from the cabin with her shoe in his hand, an empty emblem of what he could have taken. Bleeding, she runs away and turns back to see him in the lit cabin of the truck: “he held my shoe in his hand, laughing, and I was filled with so much furious hatred for him I wanted to take a stone and smash his greasy head with it”. Later on, she is talking with a friend on Skype, and sends him the recording of the incident which she got on her hidden camera. He translates the Russian of the truck driver for her, simple words whose implication send her into a kind of post-traumatic panic attack: “what’s wrong little sourface, are you a long way from home?” Under the definitive grid of patriarchy, which we call society, a woman is a long way from home, wherever she is. Except, perhaps, when she is in the Wilderness.

The thing about these violent intrusions, aside from their chilling inhumanity, is that they interrupt a stream of consciousness that has far greater concerns than where a man may or may not put his penis. The style and tone of the narrative twitches like the ears of a deer, veering from outer action to inner monologue. It swirls from detailed considerations of outer space to a kitchen in the Midlands; sways from the Alaskan tundra to the tight cabin of a truck; from the Large Hadron Collider to Inuit mythology. There is so much more to Erin that the parameters of the truck driver’s hands.

The reviewer in the Guardian newspaper, herself an eminent award winning author, had a problem with Erin’s inner monologue. ‘Erudite teenagers do exist, but in my experience they are usually in better control of grammar and have a wider vocabulary in daily life than Erin. Her tone lurches from scholarly discourses on cell structure, with diagrams, to a laconic dependence on swearing and the passive voice to communicate emotion.’ Lurches is an interesting choice of word – it is pejorative, and gives an impression of a rudderless book afloat a sea of emotion. I would say slips or skims better suit the book, both of which capture some of the queasiness of the effect of reading it, but which grant it the deftness and control that it displays. It does have a Snapchat style to it, a postmodern mish-mash of high and low culture, an Instagram attention span, a Facebook wall collage of politics, philosophy and cat videos. But could this be more than a greenhorn inability to steer the ship she has created? Could it in fact be seen in the same way that Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting in a Glaswegian patois, or Junot Diaz writes in his diasporic tongue, unapologetic to the standardised orthodoxy of proper literature; could this be called a kind of millennial patois? Because this is a text from the new world, where ideas come in mosaic.

The effect of this heady kaleidoscope of imagery is akin to a fainting panic attack that is not in fact panic, but power, and the conjuring of it. These words are not so much an attack of linearity, but an outright rejection of it – that old writers’ chestnut, show don’t tell, but extended from plot into style. In this swirl of references, themes appear and reappear and then merge to become analogous of each other. Partition of genre sinks under sheer weight of diversity. Paradox is embraced. The narrative builds its thesis by repeatedly circling around recurrent themes, not in concentric rings, but with the intervening text weighting them with different contexts, in that exponential spiral, that Fibonacci dynamic of a soaring eagle, the descent of a sycamore seed, and the dimensions of a womb.

Which brings us to the central tenet of the book, which wears its heart right on its cover sleeve – the word for woman is wilderness. The author goes for this full pelt (“I am a mystic because owning a vagina is mystical”), making the well-trodden parallels between the colonisation of the wilderness with the dominance of the female body by the male gaze. When the wilderness is defined, it is confined, and exploited, and the same applies to women. The word for feminism is environmentalism. And vice versa.

This kind of Mooncup mysticism pisses off a lot of third-wave feminists. For them, the spiritual link between woman and Mother Nature is another form of othering, an internalised patriarchy, some virgin territory for Man to penetrate with his engorged ego and opinionated seed. The need for women to run with wolves is seen as a dusty old cardigan from the nineties, the ashes of a burnt bra. But the new world is intersectional, a spaghetti junction of narrative threads, and this is the narrator’s experience. Just a shard of the fragmented frontline of feminism, and she claims it.

Erin does achieve her goal: she proves that the manly dimension of the wild has more to do with the imagination of the men than the biology of a woman. These days, of course, that butch, hairy, plaid-shirt archetype bears more relation to Shoreditch coffee house branding than it does to cabins or self-subsistence. But she kills her first hare, she fishes, she lights a fire without matches, all those things that the men before her have defined as wild.

The harder yoke to lift is the world of the word. That definition imposed upon reality by what the narrator calls ‘Mountain Man’. Mountain Man is not just Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Chris McCandless, the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose words built the archetype of man-in-wild, but also Darwin and Adam Smith, whose theories imposed a structure, or taxonomy, on nature. The last scaffold to fall is the sturdiest, the rigid network of words that have defined not only the world before us, but our relationship with it. She drops the documentary, she burns the maps, she does her best to unleash the place before her from the words of the mountain men. She is rewilding her mindscape, uncivilising her gaze.

Alone in the cabin, time becomes disordered, sleep and wakefulness blur, reality melds into dream, and with the appearance of a reindeer outside the hut, the verity of her account evaporates into magic realism, myth, only to condense back into the cold truth of a near-fatal accident.

That Guardian review again: ‘It doesn’t really matter if middle-aged readers are annoyed by the ageism, teenspeak and reinvention of various political wheels – it’s not meant for us.’ Reading this line, my mind swung to a famous speech made by Bob Dylan when he was twenty-two years old. The elite liberals of New York had decided to place laurels on the folk singer’s head, to enclose him into their fold, and honoured him with their annual Tom Paine Award. Dylan got up on stage, took the award, and told them all to get fucked. “It is not an old people’s world. It is not an old people’s world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people when their hair grows out, they should go out.” How rude! How ageist! How ungrateful! How prophetic.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a glimpse into the crystal ball of the present. In a world governed by the outraged scream of the dying dinosaurs, patriarchs and nationalists who really are lurching on a tired, wobbly old scaffold, there is a generation of young people beneath them who are simultaneously most vulnerable to their flailing limbs, but who are also already fluent in this new world language. On a personal level, anecdotally, I sense their power when I ‘teach’ the young women writers of Haringey sixth form college in North London, prickling with optimism at their self-assuredness, the sage ease with which they negotiate gender, sexuality, capitalism and the patriarchy. Statistically, in good ol’ science, it is there for all to see in the Brexit vote: in the two thirds of youth voters who turned out to have their say, and the eighty percent of young female voters who voted to remain. They use language and tools that the older generations, myself included, do not understand, and so have largely been dismissed as frivolous, another sector of society marginalised for their alternativity. But for how much longer?

This is not reconciliatory prose. It doesn’t seek to please.  It’s not asking for your acceptance or the benediction of this review. It is far stronger than that. But neither is it a trumpet call from the mountain top, or a Thorlike smashing of a system. It’s not Xena, Buffy, Lara Croft, Margaret Thatcher; it is not strong in the prescribed manner of Mountain Man. It is far stronger than that: it is Audrey Lorde, who refuses to dismantle the castle with the same tools used to build it. It is a quiet, sardonic, funny, fluid text, a visionary book, that shows us the future is in fact already here. The top dogs might still be on top, but the wolves are moving in.


The Word For Woman is Wilderness is out now, and available here.