This Great Wilderness by Eva Seyler
This Great Wilderness is so not what I was expecting, and I mean that as a compliment. It is an adventure story, but it’s an adventure story contained within three different character studies, of three very different characters. The vibe of the story reminds me a bit of My Family and Other Animals, although I’m not sure why other than Raymond’s love of animals. But it has that old feel to it, like there’s history and sunshine and nature actually contained in the pages. I could perfectly imagine all the characters in my head as I read and I kept thinking of how good a period piece film it would be. It genuinely just made me feel like I was in a movie, which is a great testament to the author’s narrative skill. It also brought to mind Into the Wild. Again, not because it’s similar, but it definitely has that nature-contrasted-against-society vibe. And then I’d also say it fits in well with the likes of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which deals with the slow blossoming romance of two people devastated by WWII who are trying to heal in the strange postwar world that comes next, and do so in the quieter places of the world.
(I’m putting in the book links above, but funnily enough, these references/comparisons are to the adaptations of the mentioned books, lmaooo. But they were all books first, so I’m linking the books. I’ve only read Into the Wild of the above, ha! So the films/show adaptations of My Family and Other Animals and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are what I’m comparing This Great Wilderness to. And the book version of Into the Wild, but also the film version, lmao. This is such a segue ramble …)
It must be said that the writing in this book is utterly engrossing. It’s a mix-up of a boy’s journal, and a man’s thoughts and a woman’s thoughts. But it reads a bit like everyone’s journalling or confessing – or even like they’re narrating a documentary, although that’s not actually what’s happening – so the book really reads as like a historical fiction journal of two very broken people and the sweet little boy who’s just super excited to be wandering around 1950s Argentina and not having to do homework, lmao. Anton’s joy at everything is so adorable and he’s such a sweet little character. Raymond was by far my favourite though. I found myself relating to him and the way he approached a lot of the world and I didn’t struggle to understand his decisions the way I struggled with Leni. An introspective, butterfly-loving, entirely introverted yet capable policeman is certainly a complex character and I admired his total devotion to his son, his love for his late wife and how he just takes Leni in despite not wanting to at the start.
There’s a lot of personal and physical trauma that the characters deal with in this book. The story starts after WWII, so you have a woman (Leni) who was kidnapped by a group of Nazis who depart Germany after Hitler’s death and moved to Argentina to escape prison (which was historically a notorious hide out for many prominent members of the Nazi Party). Leni, as a result of her forced marriage by her insane, abusive, rapist of a husband, is ignorant not only of the state of global affairs, but of how to function outside of her husband’s role (he basically forced her into playing a living doll version of his late wife and it was so fucking creepy). Then there’s the main male lead (Raymond) whose wife (Antonia) was killed by the Nazis, and his little boy (Anton) whose entire life was changed by the war but who was too young to really remember it. So everything is very grim and understandably depressing at the start.
Raymond was my favourite character from the outset. I liked Anton’s sweet enthusiasm and found his chapters adorable, but Raymond’s desire to be alone with nature is totally relatable and I really liked him. He was just a good dude. But I struggled to not be frustrated by Leni after she fell in with them and the duo became a trio. While I understand that she doesn’t have much of a grasp of independence because of what she’s gone through, she often didn’t seem to even want to try, either. At least not for the first hundred pages. She doesn’t have much initiative or sense of survival after she flees her captors. It struck me as odd. She had the courage and the wherewithal to run away when she sensed danger, but once she’s in the company of total strangers (and honestly, Raymond could be anyone and could be bad. She mentions herself that she was terrified of him) she just gives up and puts the responsibility of her wellbeing and health onto them. Instead of running away from this strange man who doesn’t want her around or trying to be alone, she forces them to take her. Literally. And then crumples at the smallest things required of her to survive once they settle down around the campfire.
Her behaviour frustrated and confused me at the start of the novel mostly because it wasn’t like she couldn’t have stayed behind in the town Raymond brought her safely to after he found her hiding in his truck. Raymond got her a bed and protection and everything. But she left that place, where she could have been comfortable, forced herself along on their trip, unasked (he says no; she follows him down the road until it’s too late to turn back and he can either let her die of exposure or bring her along), and then she doesn’t bother to feed herself until Raymond is forced to feed her his and his son’s food so she doesn’t starve. The way she grabbed and then shunned independence was something I really tried to understand, but was certainly confused by. Like, she was always very sweet to Anton, and I appreciated that – it’s clear how much she wants to be a mother – but she just put Raymond through the wringer and then was mad at him about being annoyed by her presence. She fights to survive and then refuses to eat or drink to live until it becomes Raymond’s problem; she drinks all the alcohol that they needed to treat infections and then storms off, forcing poor dear Raymond to go after her. At the start, while she’s thinking about how attractive he is, she’s also determined at times to make him somehow the bad guy when it comes to their disagreements. Disagreements which stem from the fact that he knew she was in deep with Nazis, and his wife was killed in the war. So he’s not exactly nice at the start and doesn’t trust her. But, like, no one would? And she doesn’t trust him, either. So it goes both ways. And despite how Raymond’s actively keeping her alive, she’s still trying to paint him as a bad guy. For example, she plots on how to use his relationship with his late wife against him and rails at him for not treating her better when he is literally the only one keeping her alive. Honestly, she was a really tough character for me to get a read on at the start, but she was compelling. Compelling is a good word.
Despite all the chaos she inflicts upon their trip and the way she stops taking care of herself around Raymond after saving herself from her Nazi captors, she’s also smart enough to use radios and speak any language she encounters, which is handy. Like the way she picked up languages is just an incredibly impressive skill. She’s a fascinating character study, honestly, because despite all the times she frustrated me with how she was going about things, I didn’t hate her and I did want her to grow, and want more for herself, and I flew through her scenes without getting bored because it’s all very well written and it’s so easy to sink into the postwar journey of these troubled characters, easily likeable or determinedly difficult.
To be clear, Leni’s crying and the fear is totally understandable and not remotely part of what frustrates me. That makes absolute sense given what she’s been through. I just wished she’d grabbed herself a bit of the independence she seized in the first place by fleeing her captors, but just seemed to abandon the instant she got with Raymond (and which Raymond is clearly also desperate for her to claim because he reads as frustrated by her as I am for a good chunk of the book, lmao). That said, Leni does eventually start to progress and develop, and I liked the way things wrapped up and the arrival of a certain character at the end. I also adored the three donkeys and their shenanigans!
The Nazi side characters were chilling and sickening and reading about what was done to Leni was heartbreaking. I felt so bad for her in those flashbacks to what happened to her. (The book makes use of several flashbacks throughout, so we see what Leni went through and we see Raymond’s past with his late wife.)
Overall, this story is an engrossing character study that fans of historical fiction, nature fiction, war fiction and/or romance should definitely check out! It’s a dark, compelling tale, with a hopeful ending that wraps everything up nicely.
Thank you to the author for a review copy.