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Fiona Wood is an award-winning Australian author; WILDLIFE is her first book to be published in the United States, and readers will be pleased to discover this new-to-them author who writes in the realistic, down-to-earth mold of another Australian favorite, Melina Marchetta.
Certain readers may also be more than a little envious of kids in Australian schools after reading WILDLIFE. It takes place during a required experiential learning semester, during which the high school students live in cabin-like dorms in the wilderness, take interdisciplinary classes, embark on a solo overnight camping trip, and do a lot of running. This is, of course, a welcome change for many students, a chance to explore self and relationship outside the confines of the classroom and away from parental pressures. But for some kids, it's a chance to run wild, and for others, the lack of structure and routine also means being forced to confront themselves in a way they never have to under ordinary circumstances.
For much of WILDLIFE, Wood focuses exclusively on relationships…a way that is both subtle and compelling.
That's certainly the case for Sibylla, a girl whose run-of-the-mill popularity gets a huge boost in the days leading up to the wilderness trip, when she is selected to appear in a billboard modeling campaign. All of a sudden, she's drawn the attention of the cutest boy in school, the kind of guy she never dreamed would go for her. Her best friend, Holly, is thrilled for her --- or is she? As Sib negotiates the backwoods, she's also navigating the unexplored territory of sex while trying to figure out why the two most important friendships in her life --- the one with Holly and the one with her long-time guy friend, Michael --- are suddenly so difficult to understand. She's not even sure what she wants anymore: "Who am I again? The billboard model; the gangly, pimple-faced uggie-pie buried in my books; the would-be feminist who is always in trouble with her best friend; the nerd; the sulky but affectionate daughter; the girl who wants to kiss the boy?"
Unlike Sibylla, Lou seems more in charge of who she is; she rarely, if ever, lets anyone else see that true self, though. She's the new girl at school, joining just in time for the wilderness semester. She is coming off a personal tragedy that she can't quite bring herself to talk about yet, even when people like Sib's friend Holly make heartbreaking comments, intentionally or not. Lou is pretty good at staying on the margins and watching other people's relationship dynamics; but when she sees Sib about to simultaneously get hurt while hurting someone else, she has to decide whether to take a risk and intervene, even if it means coming out of her self-imposed isolation.
For much of WILDLIFE, Wood focuses exclusively on relationships --- romantic relationships, friendships, and the relationship one has with oneself --- in a way that is both subtle and compelling. Near the end of the novel, there's a dramatic series of events that results in some pretty tense page-turning as many of these issues come to a head. But, true to form, Wood doesn't impose an artificially tidy ending on her characters' stories. Instead, the end, while satisfying, recognizes the complexities of teenagers' lives and relationships and acknowledges that even when some questions are answered, many more remain to be explored.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 7, 2014

by Fiona Wood

  • Publication Date: May 10, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Poppy
  • ISBN-10: 031624208X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316242080