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282 pages, Paperback
First published July 31, 2021
Vivid, compelling and unforgettable
I went into this book relishing the idea of being transported to mountains and forests of South Africa and came out amazed at how Penny Haw immersed me not just in nature, but in complex family dynamics and lives unfulfilled – but still with so much to play for. If that’s a little too wordy, it’s because I am struggling to get across all the things this beautiful book achieved for me.
The setting is vivid and fascinating, at times cruel, at others beautiful, and integral to the plot in a way that was entirely believable. I loved lines such as, 'The forest was alive when she awoke hours later. It was as if the birds were celebrating the warmth of the sun as it fought its way through the clouds.'
But what really stood out for me was the way Haw let her characters explore their lives so far and the events and people who have made them who they are. Thrust as they are into perilous situations in the wilderness, those characters must make decisions to change and to shake off their fears. Without giving anything away, there were some wonderful punch-the-air moments for me as a reader.
I felt the multiple points of view worked well and did so because each character was given so much depth – with elements from their past deftly woven into the story. The chapters rotated through these points of view in such a way as to fill in gaps, create new suspense and present countering views and it all added up to a truly satisfying read.
This is the first novel I have read to deal in depth with anorexia. I felt it was done with such a sensitive and knowledgeable touch. Clare’s own experience of anorexia is explored in detail but so too is the impact on her parents, siblings and friends. There are some beautiful lines, as below, that convey Clare’s emotional state and her nascent friendship with Faye, a friend of Clare’s parents with whom she is thrown together when a hiking trip goes wrong.
It was as if, without asking or even anticipating that she might not be welcome, Faye had simply stepped into the bubble Clare had created to hold the world at bay. It was meant to be a place where she could remain numb, put life on pause. Others had seen it, but now Faye ignored it and Clare was grateful.
Faye is also fascinating. Little by little we discover more about her marriage and about who she once was. I have rarely rooted for a character as much as I rooted for Faye.
This is not a particularly long novel and yet beyond main characters Faye and Clare, we also get to know several others, including Clare’s father, Faye’s husband and their whole hiking group made up of old friends. The dynamic in this decades-old group is brilliantly recognisable.
This isn’t the kind of book to hit readers over the head with a moral or message, but it did leave me with a strong sense of hope. There is the hope we can change, the hope we can work at understanding each other better, hope we can be more accepting. As Faye says to Clare, ‘None of us stay the same as we experience life. We change. We evolve.’
The Wilderness Between Us is a beautifully written book full of hope and unforgettable characters. With its a rare mix of suspense, exquisite prose and thoughtfulness, it’s a book I will return to again and again and recommend over and over.