Wildlife by Fiona Wood – review

Happy April, friends! Today I want to talk about one of my favorite March reads. Technically this was a fall 2014 release in the US, but it pubbed in Australia earlier.

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I finished Fiona Wood’s Wildlife late last week and haven’t had a chance to write about it until now. I probably could’ve found time immediately after I finished it, but I was too busy hugging the book to my chest while I rambled at my husband about how happy I was. Really. This is that kind of book.

Wildlife is a dual narrative, alternating between new girl Lou and newly-popular-girl Sibylla as their class embarks on a school term in the wilderness. Lou is recovering from the loss of someone close to her, while Sibylla is navigating and reevaluating her own close relationships. Amazon calls the book “a tender, funny story of first love, good friendship, and going a little bit wild.”

Sort of standard YA “friendship book” fare, but what separates this one for me is the dual narrative, which I’m always a sucker for but which works exceptionally well here–neither girl knows what the other is going through for much of the book, yet they are so different and each so tangled up in their own issues that they can at the same time see each other’s situations more clearly, in some ways. There’s a real sense here that something vital about each girl and about the story would be lost without the dual narrative, so that it’s not just a gimmick but a careful and beautifully executed writing choice. Lou and Sibylla are both incredibly vibrant and so lovable, so that I never found myself favoring one over the other or wishing I was back in the previous POV when the perspective switched. I love these girls. And I love Michael, longtime friend of Sibylla’s and new friend of Lou’s, a genuinely sweet boy and the kind of true friend you wish for.

Wood’s writing is wonderful in a lot of other ways. Each girl’s voice is distinct and very authentically teenaged, with just enough pop culture references to delight when they come up but not to distract from the overall narrative. The pacing of this book is pitch perfect–one example of this is how Wood doesn’t over-commit herself to switching back and forth every other time, occasionally giving Lou or Sibylla two or three small chapters in a row as needed. There’s something else, too, something witty and immersive and just right in the voice or the style that I can’t quite put my finger on but that I’ve found in the other Australian YA I’ve read and loved–maybe it’s something in the water. (Are the sharks and other various horrifying sea monsters somehow scaring you into writing exceptional novels, Australian writers? Is it worth it?)

Honestly, I have not a single bad thing to say about this book; it made my heart feel so full and good, and is one of the only books I’ve actually hugged to me after finishing it. I think fans of Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury High books will especially love this beautiful, genuine, feminist, important book about friendship and loss and navigating big decisions and taking changes in stride. There are, I guess, a few predictable elements to the story–you can maybe see early on which relationships will strengthen and which won’t fare so well, and you might even be able to guess about when things will start to go badly for various characters. But it’s really pretty hard to care about knowing what’s coming; Wood keeps you so interested in the how and the why because it’s not just plot elements, it’s real things happening to these real people. In fact, I think the book is best summed up by the Melina Marchetta blurb on the cover: “A beautifully crafted novel with achingly real characters that I couldn’t get out of my head.”

What are some of your favorite books with characters that feel so real you just want to spend time with them? Or are there other Australian YA novels you adore?

Suggested bonus reading:

  • Kelly Jensen’s “Year of the Feminist YA Novel” post, which is where I first heard about Wildlife and a bunch of other books on my TBR pile. I take a lot of my book recs from Kelly, and you should, too!
  • Stacey Lee’s “Why Friendship Books are Essential,” not about this book specifically, but about books like it and why they matter. Some AWESOME science there about female friendship in particular.
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