The Vaster Wilds

Riverhead. Sept. 2023. 272p. ISBN 9780593418390. $28. F
There’s an essential friction to Groff’s (Matrix) writing, which leaves readers torn between inhaling her compelling, shape-shifting narratives and slowing down to savor her stunning language line; with its lean narrative foundation, this work tends toward the latter reading experience. The story follows a young girl’s flight from an early colonial U.S. settlement owing to murky circumstances, the full scope of which is slowly shaded in through dreams, fevers, and memories. Groff revels in this primal place, detailing the myriad brutalities and iniquities of an unforgiving colonial-era wild (society included). In one moment, all is goop and grime and gruesomeness, while the next might trace the grace and beauty of the natural world. The novel’s structure is lightly Odyssean, as the young girl encounters everything from bears to Jesuits to smallpox, and while hers is fundamentally a journey from rather than toward, it’s an unknown future. But while the spareness does afford readers the space to relish Groff’s mastery of pen, it also results in stretches that can feel lost in the language, with the author’s typical psychological acuity giving way and the novel’s narrative waypoints eventually beginning to feel a little unvaried.
VERDICT A fittingly adventurous effort from one of our best writers, but one yielding the growing sense that we’ve seen that tree before.
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