Book Review: “Wilder Country” by Mark Smith (#LoveOzYA @marksmith0257 @textpublishing)


I read Mark Smith’s The Road to Winter (Text Publishing, 2016) back in July 2017, as one of the six titles shortlisted for the inaugural Readings Young Adult Book Prize. (In fact, a quick search showed the book was also shortlisted for five other major literary prizes across Australia, including the 2017 Indie Book Award for Young Adult and the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.)

In my book review, I described The Road to Winter as “an unusual post-apocalyptic novel”. This is because the first-person narrator Finn is independent, resourceful, well stocked with suppliers, has no use of violence, is free from “adult” problems such as depression and alcoholism, harbours no sense of guilt about the past, and thus has no need to prove himself. “Finn finds peace in solitude, his emotions beginning to stir only after he comes out of isolation,” I concluded. “To me, he is very much a human edition of the little robot in Wall-E (2008), who happily turns his life upside down after a chance encounter with something of his own kind.”

Now, in Wilder Country (Text Publishing, 2017), Finn continues his journey as an unusual antihero, with neither physical strength nor combat knowledge and skills to fend off the bad guys. Yet he continues to care, and to treat his loved ones – as well as enemies – as natural equals and without any bias. I guess this is why Finn as the protagonist troubles me a little bit – he is so “mild” about everything that very often he is more like a spectator than an active participant in the events confronting him. His own fears and tears seem less real than those of people around him – at least that is the impression this reader gets while reading Finn’s narration.

Finn’s voice is most fluent and elegant when he yearns for the sea. Perhaps this explains why, as a character, he becomes more reserved, indecisive and even awkward the further he moves inland. Away from the coast, Finn is acutely passive, in sharp contrast to Kas and even Willow who are not afraid to challenge anyone who tries to stop them. Yet, however reluctant he is, Finn remains a hero through to the end, as every possible and imaginable obstacle quietly falls away and all his wishes granted. This is another bit that troubles me.

Still, I learned two precious lessons from reading Wilder Country. The first is never to assume an author’s intentions. (One of my favourite quotes is from Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs [1988]: “If you assume when I send you on a job, Starling, you can make an ass out of u and me both.”)

The other and more important lesson I learned is this: In their own worlds, when there is no one from the outside to (un)intentionally point out their impediments, people with disabilities are as ordinary and self-contented as “normal” people like us. Writers take note: Please do not have your first-person narrator telling/volunteering their impediments. A better approach is to show the physical and/or invisible differences between your protagonist and those around them.

You can find more information about Mark Smith’s Wilder Country here.


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