Wildlife by Fiona Wood

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wildlifeWildlife by Fiona Wood
Little, Brown, 2014.

In this second novel from Australian writer, Fiona Wood (her debut Six Impossible Things will be published in the U. S. in August, 2015), 10th grade students from a Melbourne private school spend a term at their school’s outdoor education campus in the mountains. Unlike most of the teen novels I’ve read recently, there are no twists, fantasy elements or teens with unspecified illnesses. The drama comes from the characters and their interactions, at a time of life when all interactions are inherently dramatic.

Sybilla Quinn is an easy going, dreamy, smart girl, who has recently been featured in a billboard ad for a perfume. This has upped her social currency to the extent that Ben Capaldi, hot boy of the class, is taking an interest in her for the first time. Meanwhile her best friend, Holly, seems ambivalent both about the billboard and Ben, as it has always been understood that in this friendship “she was the more important one.”. Introduced into this stew is a new student, Lou, who is still grieving over the death of her boyfriend in a bike accident. And then there’s Michael, who has nurtured a crush on Sib since kindergarten, while she feels a deep, but sisterly, affection, and protective concern as he’s different (in an unstated, on the autism spectrum, way).

The story of the ten weeks at camp is told by Sib and Lou in alternating, short chapters. The catalyst for the social drama is the viperish Holly, “the one who enjoys pricking bubbles more than anyone else.” Both Lou and the reader can immediately see that she is No Good, and we spend a goodly amount of time waiting for her comeuppance and for Sib to finally realize how poisonous she is.

The arc of the story follows Sib and Lou as they, credibly, come to terms with their lives and with growing up. Sib has been a drifter, and now with Lou’s encouragement, she starts to find her voice and make her own choices. And Lou gradually realizes that, even though it’s a cliche, life does go on. This character development drives the novel along at a good pace, and I found this was easily sufficient to make for a gripping page-turner – turns out you don’t need anything else if you’re a good enough writer.

A couple of quibbles:  there are a few plot strands left dangling – the oft-mentioned hunters, for example, brings a low level menace which doesn’t go anywhere; and some of the Aussie-isms are not immediately comprehensible, but Google was my friend here.

Even though Wildlife is set on the other side of the world, it is an immediately relatable teen story that reads well and easily, and I look forward to reading Ms. Wood’s next novel.

Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.

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