The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews

Serpent’s Tail, February 2018, 306 pp

Serpent’s Tail, February 2018, 306 pp

Erin, the 19-year-old protagonist of Abi Andrews’s debut novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness, is determined to shake the stereotypes of male-dominated nature travelling by going to Alaska for an authentic experience of wilderness. With plans to shoot a video documentary of her trip, she embarks on the backpacking adventure by seafaring from England to Iceland, from there to Greenland, and finally from there to Canada and Alaska. (Air travel is out of the question in the name of a more genuine travel experience.) For the first half of the novel, at the end of which she reaches her much sought-after destination, she ruminates on how travelling and exploration has been and still is almost exclusively a male activity. Jack London, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few of the travel and nature writers frequently mentioned by Erin, get their fair share of criticism in this witty and razor-sharp novel of great topical value. The Word for Woman is Wilderness is an immersive ecofeminist narrative, one that is assertive, lively, and always deep:

It is hard to feel a connection with any animal in a spiritual way as a British person when the only animals you are surrounded by are domesticated cats, dogs, cows, sheep, horses, and then symbols or images of animals. If symbols are mostly what we have to go on, is this uselessly inauthentic, just too far removed? A symbol of a symbol, not a direct one like a bear track in the mud? Do they lose their potency when you take them from an advert on television?

The novel’s charm owes much to Erin’s frank and incisive commentary on all things patriarchal. Erin’s young age is to her benefit, as her voice is not yet muffled by the realities of adulthood: her comments erupt with the sort of power that is often absent from older voices, voices that have settled down in the safe confines of their comfort zones. Erin has her whole life ahead of her and, reinforced by millennial anxiety, she’s pissed about many things. She is more knowledgeable in physics, biology, and other sciences than your average adult, yet there’s something very believable in her character. She’s clearly well educated, but not necessarily an alter ego of the author: I can see a 19-year-old Erin in real life, a recent graduate from school in search of her identity, eager to spend a gap year doing something that truly matters.

In the Alaskan wilderness, then, the pace of the novel slows down a little to give room for a deeper reflection of her character:

So really why am I out here and what am I looking for? I am looking for something that is lost and kept from me but I do not quite know what it is. When I find it I know it will be broken and that I need to fix it but I don’t know how to do that either. What I want right now is to be able to go back in time and talk to a younger lost me and tell her some things that I have found out.

You are sixteen years old and you are confused and lost and numb. You do not know your body or yourself and you mediate them through a little pill that you think is doing your good, reshaping you to fit in a world that will not otherwise accommodate you. You are told at the same time that it is yours now finally; you are lucky to be a modern woman. But it feels otherwise.

She has strived for the complete Mountain Man experience, and once she has accomplished it, there’s a an epiphany of sorts: exploration often leads to colonizing, plus living as spaciously as the Mountain Men (such as Ted Kaczynski alias the Unabomber who plays an important role in the novel) envision is simply not possible for the whole human population. From this point of view, fantasizing about one’s solitary existence away from society is a selfish, if not even an elitist, act. So why would she want to pursue the dream of the Mountain Men, even as a transgressive act of a woman?

Thus, The Word for Woman is Wilderness is also a coming-of-age story besides its more explicitly feminist and ecocritical themes. There is such an abundance of information in the novel that, at points, it verges on being too information-heavy or essayistic, but Andrews avoids the pitfall by providing a rational (and very good) ending to the story, which explains the somewhat essayistic elements. With all its illustrations and transcriptions of the video document, The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a varied, funny, and an important novel for our times, a novel I wish would also reach a varied audience.