14 Novels of Wildness & Wilderness
A list of books that broach the great outdoors, by Steve Himmer
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When I find myself wishing for some vaguely imagined nonexistent book I’d like to read, I’m almost always pining for a novel of the wild outdoors. I love urbane social comedies and absurd novels about office work and many kinds of fiction set mostly indoors and in town. But if I get snowed into a cabin with only one kind of reading at hand, I want a big stack of books that take wilderness and wildness seriously, outdoor novels a bit wild themselves. Novels set in strange forests as surprising and wondrous as real ones. Feral novels that make more of nature than a screen on which to project the emotional lives of human characters.
Lots of outdoor fiction offers straightfaced realism written as if literature hasn’t changed in a century, or the didacticism of characters each standing in for a position on some environmental issue and making sure you know it whenever they open their mouths. But what I want is fiction with a sense of play in its style, bringing into the woods things taken for granted in novels about urban lives for decades but disappointingly rare beyond city limits — unreliable narrators and unexpected narrative structures. Stories that can’t be predicted from the opening pages, and a sense of humor sorely lacking in so much nature writing. In an era of bears surprising both deep forest hikers and suburban strollers engrossed in their phones, coyotes wandering down city streets, and birds in the rafters of home improvement stores, there’s a wild possibility of surprise in modern life. And at the less pleasant extreme there’s the chaos of climate change and other modern problems demanding modern stories about them.
I try to get that wildness into my own fiction, most recently with Scratch, my attempt at a feral, strange forest novel. And I try to find it as often as possible in my reading. There don’t ever seem to be enough of those books to keep me sated, but here are a few of my favorites (though I’ve left off a couple that are better known, for the sake of sharing some overlooked blooms in the scrub).
Wild Life by Molly Gloss
The first time I read Wild Life it blew me away and it does so again each time I return. Presented as the early 1900s diary of a proto-feminist, single mother author of pulp fictions who goes into an Oregon forest in search of a missing girl, only to get lost herself and discover mysterious creatures beyond what her insistent rationalism allows for, Gloss’s novel delves into myths of the “wildman” and myths of gender and does it all with a magnificent narrative voice as wild as the forest around it.
The Hunter by Julia Leigh
M, who goes by the name Martin though it isn’t his, gets hired by a pharmaceutical company to hunt and harvest DNA from the world’s last living Tasmanian tiger, long after the species is thought extinct. Somehow, in a very short novel, Leigh weaves together the shadowy reach of modern business, the tragic colonial and ecological histories of her setting, a classic story of exploration stripped of its celebratory machismo, and a mother and children left behind broken by the blinkered desires of men. Despite the remoteness of this novel’s forest, it is enmeshed in the networks of money and power that entangle us all, wherever we live.
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside
I have to thank novelist and translator Michelle Bailat-Jones for introducing me to The Wall, because it quickly became one of my favorites. The nameless middle-aged narrator visits friends at their remote mountain hunting lodge, only to be left alone by the inexplicable appearance of an invisible barrier at the edge of the valley it occupies. Left to fend for herself, she breaks restraints built up over years spent sublimating her individual identity into that of a mother and wife, allowing a wilder self to emerge.
Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by David Hackston
I could have picked any one of Sinisalo’s novels to put on this list, because it’s hard to think of a writer consistently doing more exciting things in fiction about the natural world. But Birdbrain is the most “outdoorsy” among her English translations, as it brings us along with a Finnish couple hiking in New Zealand and Australia. Alternating between their accounts of events we’re privy to the relationship’s tensions and strains as the couple are stripped of pretenses and niceties by their time in the wild, but we’re also aware of an eerier presence in the forest around them.
Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson
This one was published in 1936, but you wouldn’t know from its prescience. It’s an account of a Scottish couple fleeing the city for a wild home in the hills ahead of the imminent threats of perpetual war, disease, and disaster. But what makes it stand out from other stories of escaping modernity “back to nature” is how unavoidably the outside world presses in, and how earnestly Wild Harbour takes on harder questions seldom asked in similar stories about the ethics and impossibilities of hiding out in the back of beyond while the world burns.
The Blue Fox by Sjon, translated by Victoria Cribb
The Blue Fox moves between a hunter, his vulpine quarry, a boy with Down’s syndrome, and other characters in mysterious tandem, woven together as any place is with threads of history and folklore and transformation. Sometimes when I read literature in translation I suspect I’m missing so much that the power of the work is lost to me, but with The Blue Fox that opacity is one of the qualities I most enjoy: I know there are allusions and echoes I’m not attuned to, but that misunderstanding feels like wandering a landscape I only half understand and just makes me want to return.
The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna, translated by Herbert Lomas
I visited friends in Finland quite a few years ago, and The Year of the Hare was the book — so they told me — everyone was talking about at the time. It’s a short, simple novel about a journalist who stops by the roadside to enter the forest in aid of an injured hare. There are plenty of novels offering sentimental accounts of characters giving up their fast city lives at the inspiration of some noble animal; perhaps some of those are imitations of this. But Paasilinna’s has a depth of wit and sadness, and awareness, that for me elevates it above many others.
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
When the world collapses in ways and for reasons they don’t quite understand, sisters Eva and Nell are left alone at the remote cabin their family retreated to in preparation. Into the Forest is as gripping as any thriller or rural horror, but there’s a thoughtfulness to the novel perfectly balanced with details of the pragmatic, often painful means by which the sisters survive. Like some others on this list it pulls us so fully into its wild bubble that even as we know we should root for rescue or the world’s recovery, we’re torn because of what would be lost.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley
Hands down one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in years. The language is wild, the setting is wild, the narrator is absolutely one of a kind, and this whole account of his life as the last speaker of the language of snakes — and one of the last members of his ancient forest culture who hasn’t abandoned the trees for life in town — is full of tragedy, comedy, mystery, absurdity, and everything you could possibly want from a novel. I’ve read that Kivirähk’s novel is so popular in his native Estonia there’s a board game based on it, and I can only hope it, too, is available in English someday so I can play and return to its remarkable world.
The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban
Riddley Walker is Hoban’s best-known novel (and maybe his best), and Turtle Diary is the one most recently restored to print and public acclaim, but The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz has to go down as my favorite. I’m a sucker for any story, fictional or otherwise, of animals popping up where they aren’t expected, so this account of a cartographer who abandons his family, his son’s expedition to find him, and a lion stalking the streets of a city long after lions disappeared from the world has gripped my imagination for twenty-some years. It is like nothing else, which is the wildest way to be wild of all.
Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg
A domesticated English garden hardly seems wild, but Klinkenborg’s novel narrated by the titular Timothy, a female tortoise kept by eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White, makes it so. There’s no fast-paced adventure or dangerous action but by slowing the world down in a small space as described by a creature with her own sense of what’s worth looking at, Timothy is a gently disorienting read that gives us no choice but to slow down, pay attention, and see a world where the unexpected might happen — what’s more wild than that?
Power by Linda Hogan
Power is the story of a Taiga teenager pulled into a maelstrom of media and politics after she watches her aunt kill a tribally sacred and legally protected panther. It’s a deceptively straightforward novel, at least in its telling, that sneaks up to unsettle by making us take a fresh look at what may seem familiar. Wild places aren’t usually what I associate with Florida, but Power is a welcome challenge to those assumptions — as are Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach novels, which would be on this list were it longer.
Beastings by Benjamin Myers
This one’s as dark as dark gets, like Southern gothic in northern England, as it follows a teenage girl and a baby fleeing two men on her trail. But what offsets the grim cruelty of Myers’ characters is the implacable, steady presence of his landscape — yes, what’s happening is horrible, but how much does it matter in the longview of stone and hill? That’s a dual-awareness I often long for in fiction, and Myers delivers whether in the realist mode of novels like Beastings or in his novella Snorri & Frosti, a treat of absurdist minimalism about a pair of woodcutters.
Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes
The newest book on my list, I wondered if it was too soon to count Infinite Ground among the others. But it’s just that good. MacInnes’ debut is a detective novel, following an inspector whose search for a missing man takes him deep into a strange jungle. And it’s also a story about the literal and figurative breakdown of identity, whether as a result of the daily grind of work or of sharing the landscape of our own skins with millions of microorganisms. Or in this case, both. Or possibly neither. It’s hard to pin down, like all wild things.