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Thursday, May 23, 2013

'Wildlife' by Fiona Wood

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Life? It's simple: be true to yourself.

The tricky part is finding out exactly who you are...

"In the holidays before the dreaded term at Crowthorne Grammar's outdoor education camp two things out of the ordinary happened.
A picture of me was plastered all over a twenty-metre billboard. 
And I kissed Ben Capaldi."

Boarding for a term in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sibylla expects the gruesome outdoor education program – but friendship complications, and love that goes wrong? They're extra-curricula.

Enter Lou from Six Impossible Things – the reluctant new girl for this term in the great outdoors. Fragile behind an implacable mask, she is grieving a death that occurred almost a year ago. Despite herself, Lou becomes intrigued by the unfolding drama between her housemates Sibylla and Holly, and has to decide whether to end her self-imposed detachment and join the fray.

And as Sibylla confronts a tangle of betrayal, she needs to renegotiate everything she thought she knew about surviving in the wild.

A story about first love, friendship and NOT fitting in.

The Crowthorne Grammar outdoor education term is meant to impart life skills and self-reliance. Mobile phones are strictly forbidden (and reception sucks anyway) solo-hikes are a requirement and Milo is rationed – all in an effort to prepare the Year Ten’s for their imminent arrival into adulthood.

But for Lou, adulthood has already come much too soon, after the accidental death of her boyfriend, Fred. Now she’s dealing with the ache of never letting go and the shattered illusion that death is for the old. Her public school friends, Dan and Estelle, are putting their own pieces back together – and venturing on a different type of adventure, in the form of a French exchange program. But Lou, fearful of somehow abandoning Fred, instead chooses to attend her mum’s old private school, Crowthorne Grammar. It’s just a shame that her first term coincides with the dreaded outdoor education camp. Now Lou is packing up her grief into a waterproof backpack, breaking in her boots and carting her bruised heart to the middle of nowhere.

Sibylla is in the middle of a very different life lesson when the outdoor education term rudely interrupts. Despite her feminist mum’s reservations, family friend and advertising producer, Bebe, managed to convince Sibylla (‘Sib’) to be the new face of an international perfume ad campaign. Sib recently had braces off and zits cleared, emerging beautifully butterflied – but her transformation is accelerated ten-fold when a twenty-metre billboard of her appears the day before school camp. Now Sib’s emergence from the cocoon is advertised in an international campaign for all to see, and comment on. Sib’s best friend since primary school is Holly, whose bark is as bad as her bite – she seems to be a walking conundrum, at once jealous of Sib’s unbelievable good fortune, and thrilled that she can cash in on popularity-by-association for her own gains. Less enthused is Sib’s older oldest friend since kindergarten, Michael. Michael is a genius and unimpressed by the social strata at school – he’s focussed (and can sometimes get obsessed) with his piano-playing and running. To him, Sibylla will always be beautiful – billboard or no – and the resulting hubbub around her sudden popularity has him nervous.

What’s really got Michael riled is Ben Capaldi – future class president, straight-A student, ladies-man, guys-guy and all-round Mr. Popular. Normally Sib wouldn’t even be on Ben’s radar . . . but since ‘the billboard’, things have gotten interesting – in the form of an unexpected party kiss. Now Sib is going to spend an entire term in the great outdoors with her crush, trying to figure out if their kiss was a one-off, or if there;s possibility for more.

Along with four other girls, Lou and Sib are bunked together in Bennett House. Sib tries to steer clear of the new loner, and Lou is determined not to care about Crowthorne’s petty popularity stakes . . . but when you’re thrown together in the middle of nowhere, you quickly discover that the art of survival can sometimes mean depending on others, as much as yourself.

‘Wildlife’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Fiona Wood.

With some authors, it’s as though they’ve twisted off the top of your head and taken a peek inside, and then acted as brain stenographer to jot down privacies and idiosyncrasies you thought were wholly unique to you. Fiona Wood is such an author, and ‘Six Impossible Things’ was one of those books I read and felt an instant kinship with. So when news of Wood’s follow-up novel came through the YA grapevine, I marked its release date in my calendar and got excited . . . and when details of the blurb emerged, revealing that one alternating protagonist would be Lou (Estelle’s friend from ‘Six Impossible Things’, and insta-crush for Dan’s bestie, Fred) I was doubly-thrilled. There’s nothing quite like reading a book and feeling that a fictional friendship has been established with the characters – the next best thing is knowing that you’ll be able to catch up and touch base with them again (à la ‘Saving Francesca’ and ‘The Piper’s Son’). 

Of course, readers are not catching-up with Lou under the best of circumstances. When the book begins, Fred has been dead for months and Lou is still not coping . . . Dan and Estelle are making attempts to get on with their life by participating in the French exchange program, but Lou feels she should stay grounded in the country where Fred died, as a sort of allegiance to him. Fans of ‘Six Impossible Things’ will no doubt feel the crushing blow of once again meeting these characters they fell in love with, only to discover their world that we left semi-happily ever aftered, is now bleak and fractured. It’s tough, I’ll admit, but for Lou’s story it’s a hell of a place to start from. 

Sib is dealing with very different issues. She’s a forward-thinking young feminist who hates misogynistic rap lyrics and isn’t terribly impressed by the girly cliques at her school. At seeming odds with Sib’s moral fibre is the massive twenty-metre billboard of her face that’s just been erected in the city – part of a perfume ad campaign that her mother’s best friend, Bebe, talked her into doing (with the tempt of money being put towards Sib’s end-of-school travel fund). Now Sib is on everybody’s radar, for various reasons; girls look at her wondering why she’s so special, boys feel the need to comment on her ‘hotness’ and her social standing is fluctuating (from non-existent, to suddenly being kissed by the most popular boy in her year level). 

More barking. But maybe I've got traction with guys like this these strange days, and I decide to use it, instead of pretending to be a good sport and let them say any dumb thing they find amusing while I give what I hope is an ironic or non-committal smile. 
‘Being gross doesn’t make you funny.’ 
‘And being on a billboard doesn’t make you pretty,’ Vincent says. 
I catch the briefest flash of triumphant in Holly’s eye.

At first glance, Lou and Sibylla seem so different, that they’re doomed to fail in the same book. How can Lou’s grieving for her dead boyfriend possibly act as counterpoint to Sibylla’s sudden popularity sky-rocket and lustful developments with Ben Capaldi? It sounds like it shouldn’t work . . .  but this is Fiona Wood, so it does. And the magnet that initially brings these two polar opposites together is Michael – Sib’s oldest friend, and Lou’s new confidante. 

In a book with two stellar protagonists, Michael was actually my favourite character, hands down. He was just brilliant – a boy genius, tender soul and utterly unimpressed by popularity and the personality change that comes with clawing your way to the top of the ‘cool’ ladder. Michael may have Asperger syndrome, or else he simply suffers from always being the smartest person in the room (and it’s probably been that was since kindergarten) – I loved that Wood and Sib don’t hark on Michael’s quirks that mark him as different, they just accept him. And it’s his forthrightness and gentleman charm that has Lou seeking comfort in his friendship, and has him acting as a sort of bridge between her and Sib . . . and as much as Lou is gaining something from her new-found friendships, so too is Sib finding comfort in a new and old friend when romance becomes too much and frenemy, Holly, goes too far.

Sibylla’s story acts to remind Lou (and readers) that there is life beyond grief, and the world keeps turning. Sib and Michael are there to pull Lou into a different orbit; one that’s not defined by what’s missing but rather, what’s ahead. And I think if this had just been a book of Lou’s grief, it would have been very tough to get through. Tasked to jot her feelings down in a journal, Lou writes so eloquently about her hurt, bewilderment and never-ending sadness. It’s a vicious cycle that she communicates so well on the page, but poorly to the rest of the world; 

Grief settles comfortably into any host; it is an ever-mutating, vigorous organism with an ever-renewing customer base. It generates a never-ending hunger, a never-ending ache, an unassuageable pain to new hearts, brains, guts every minute, every day, every year.It is the razor edge of a loose tooth shrieking to be pressed again and again into the soft pink sore gum.  
It’s a one-way tunnel with no proof of another exit.

It’s actually a blessing to have Sibylla’s story alongside Lou’s – with her we get the butterflies-in-stomach, rollercoaster-highs of first crush turning into something more. It’s grief and giddiness, sweet and sour . . . two halves making an incredibly whole and fulfilling book. 

Fiona Wood has done it again – I was happy to get lost in the wilderness of this story, and I’ll be passing it on to friends and family (young and old – because there’s no age-limit on relating to first experiences with love and death). A beautiful book with characters I didn’t want to leave, but I feel lucky to have met (some of them for a second time). 



  1. Love your review, Danielle. The more I think about this book, the more I fall in love with it a little bit. I was tearing up on the plane while I read it.. I think this story just really got under my skin (in the best possible way). Gorgeous.

    1. Thank you :)

      This is definitely a book I'll be returning to "again and again and again" (as Cath Crowley so said)

  2. Ooo. I am hastily averting my eyes, Danielle, because I just finished this book and need to write my review. I was so pleased to see that you loved it, though! I look forward to comparing notes when I'm done with my review. :)

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. I so look forward to reading your review! I did love this book, and I can't wait to see what sort of response it gets in the US when Fiona is published by Little Brown ...


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