Sunday, 4 May 2014

Book review: Wild Things by Brigid Delaney

Wild Things by Brigid Delaney Wild Things (22 April 2014) by Brigid Delaney

Wild Things is the debut novel from Australian journalist Brigid Delaney. Promoted as a story with 'overtones of The Secret History meets Brett Easton Ellis', it's set almost entirely at St Anton's, an exclusive college which is part of an unnamed university. Every year, the college cricket team go away for a weekend of wild partying at a mountain retreat named Evelyn, behaving like animals, running riot through the forest and often hiring prostitutes - all facts their tutors turn a blind eye to. This year, however, the 'surprise' organised for them by ringleader Hadrien, who claims to head up an ancient, secret club called the Savage Society, is a boy; an innocent Malaysian student called Alfred who is bullied into attending the gathering and subjected to a series of horrific initiation rituals. He escapes, runs away, and is later found on the mountainside, barely alive and possibly permanently brain-damaged. So begins a chronicle of the efforts of those involved to hide, and to forget, what really happened, which will send them down a number of twisted paths, and ultimately bring about their ruin in one way or another.

How do you rate a book you both loved and loathed? I'm going with a middling rating, but that doesn't really reflect the extremes I felt during the course of reading it. Delaney's prose is gorgeous, and some of the turns of phrase are breathtaking. The combination of an English-style collegiate atmosphere with the hot, comparatively exotic landscapes of Australia is a potent one (there are balmy summer evenings by the lake and unusual animals wandering around on the college lawn). The plot is fully rounded, fully realised, and feels far more 'complete' than I would expect from a debut novel. The characterisation is similarly strong, and no matter what I may have thought of the people in this book, they did feel very real - horribly real; the strange, unconventionally terrifying Hadrien, while not a major figure in the plot, is nevertheless a particular highlight.

But... I hated the main characters. And here I must insert my usual disclaimer about how I don't think unpleasant characters necessarily make an unpleasant book. I like, even love, plenty of books with detestable protagonists. But if the main hook of the plot is 'will these people get away with this terrible crime?', I feel like there needs to be some element that makes the reader want them to get away with it. Instead, I actively wanted them to get caught and suffer, not simply because of what they actually did to Alfred, but because they were just dicks. Selfish, misogynist jock bullies with a planet-sized sense of entitlement, being protected by teachers who are just grown-up versions of themselves. The girls are largely treated as sex objects and, consequently, see themselves as nothing more than that, with physical appearance more important than any academic achievement, and plastic surgery a looming inevitability even at the age of 20. Any intellectual pretensions are just that - posturing, part of an image, never a real passion. This is supposed to be a college that is well-respected academically as well as socially, but the way Delaney presents it is simply as a playground for spoilt rich kids; not one of them ever seems to do any proper studying even as they namedrop poets and philosophers.

While The Secret History and books of its ilk make their elite academic institutions seem like places to be envied and revered, Wild Things makes St Anton's into a hellish waking nightmare. This might be the first time I've read a book of this type and felt nothing but relief that I didn't study somewhere like this. There are long scenes that are hallucinatory in their awfulness, that will make you endlessly grateful you don't have to associate with these people. The narrative is so effective in creating the atmosphere of the college - a hothouse of self-obsession, lethargy, vanity and depravity - that it almost chokes you. Delaney uses an obscure, invented band (given the ludicrous moniker of 'Lance Vaine and the Musical Hellos') as a constant recurring motif, creating the impression that this music is particular to the college, reinforcing the idea that it is a uniquely and bizarrely insular environment.

While Delaney writes beautifully, the story made me feel so incredibly depressed. As an indictment of modern 'emptiness' and materialism it is both thorough and damning. I had to break it up by reading other books so that it didn't make me feel too terrible; I've rarely been so happy to leave fictional characters behind. That said, the narrative really seems to shift in maturity and tone once the focus changes to the police investigating incidents at the college, rather than the students, and the ending is note-perfect. The last few chapters, the final chapter particularly, were so well-executed that they really saved the book from a lot of the aspects I hadn't enjoyed. Absolutely worth reading, but be prepared to stomach a lot of awful behaviour, disturbing scenes and downright hateful characters along the way.

Rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle

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