The Vaster Wilds 
by Lauren Groff.
Hutchinson Heinemann, 256 pp., £20, September 2023, 978 1 5291 5290 6
Show More
Show More

As in a fairy tale​ , a girl is running through a dark wood. She owns nothing in her own right: her boots were stolen off the corpse of a smallpox victim; her leather gloves were taken from her mistress. She doesn’t even have a proper name. In the poorhouse where she once lived, she was called Lamentations. The aristocratic mistress to whom she was later sent as a pet called her Zed, after the little monkey she replaced. For much of her life, she has simply been referred to as Girl. As she runs through the wilderness, she begins to make up names for the trees and plants she passes and makes a discovery: ‘Naming them, she was suddenly able to pluck them out with her eyes from the mass of other trees. Naming, she understood, made things more visible.’

Without a name the girl feels as though she is ‘walking through the world unskinned’. She realises she can change this; she can name herself. This is what Adam must have felt, she thinks of her strange elation. When she names the black flies she sees Hellspecks, she exercises a kind of mastery over them; she feels powerful. But she can come up with no word to describe herself. She keeps running, she forgets.

This scene comes about halfway through Lauren Groff’s fifth novel, The Vaster Wilds, the bones of which are so simple – even stark – that you would think it couldn’t possibly work. One character, one action: a girl running through the woods. But that austere frame is full of meaning because of who is running and why: the girl is a dark-skinned servant running through unsettled woods in America. She is running from the colony at Jamestown, Virginia in the late winter of 1609-10, at the peak of the settlement’s ‘starving time’, and from the handsome but violent Protestant minister to whom she was indentured. The land she’s running through is home to the Powhatan. She wants nothing to do with them, fearing them as she has been taught to do. She’s hoping to run far enough north that she finds the French, who may be ‘papists’ but at least are not ‘heathens’.

This tiny, starved body running through the woods takes on allegorical proportions. She is the servant who runs from the cruel master; the woman who runs from the man who rapes her; the European who runs from a broken society and takes a chance on ‘wilderness’; the coloniser blindly penetrating new territory; the Christian having a first unmediated encounter with Creation. ‘Glory pulsed in her gut; she, a nobody, a nothing, going farther than any man of Europe had yet gone in this place so new to their eyes.’ Suddenly, Groff’s premise seems not so much sparse as epic. Her themes are epic too: empire, domination, the natural world, language, consciousness, God.

One might expect the novel to conform to certain narrative conventions: the girl will find the French, form a relationship with the Powhatan, run into another refugee, decide to settle somewhere and forge a new life. But Groff seems less interested in plot than in the way stream of consciousness can take on the quality of a parable, depending on whose consciousness you’re streaming. Her previous book, Matrix (2021), was also a historical novel that focused on one woman’s mind. It tells the story of Marie, an exiled member of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is appointed abbess of a remote and failing convent. But where Matrix is fleet of foot, even glancing, skipping past whole decades of its protagonist’s life, The Vaster Wilds is close to the ground: every dirt clod, passing thought, night terror, flash of fever and aching muscle is registered.

Groff has framed the two novels as the first and second instalments in what she calls a ‘loose triptych’. Both offer psychological portraits of isolated women in pressurised situations, sorting out their relationships to power, nature and God. Marie is a noble-born atheist who – in the course of aggregating power and wealth to her abbey – becomes a believer, receiving visions from God that underwrite her unorthodox, expansionist attitude. She is aroused by her closeness to divinity: ‘Of her own mind and hands she has shifted the world. She’s made something new. This feeling is the thrill of creation.’

In The Vaster Wilds the nameless girl in the forest starts out as a true believer and remains, throughout her life, a member of the ‘meek’ who might ostensibly inherit the earth: ‘She was a mote, a speck, a floating windborne fleck of dust.’ Perhaps because of this humility, she can see with clarity the evils of the project into which she has been dragged. She knows that the colonisation effort the minister has joined in Jamestown is stained with cruelty, ego and violence. Her instincts are critical. When she hears stories about Powhatan women who trap, torture and kill English men who rape them, she does not conclude that the women are vile, as she is supposed to do. She knows what unprovoked violence feels like and understands the responses it is likely to elicit. She too has been deemed less than human, merely a resource for men like the minister to use, abuse, discard or kill.

The girl is an outsider, more comfortable with the dangers of the wilderness than the society she’s fleeing. This makes her an archetypal character of American survivalist literature, not to mention the vast mythos of the western frontier. Fleeing corruption, violence and the repercussions of an unspecified but haunting crime, she has the odds stacked against her. The woods are indifferent to her presence, bound to kill her through some combination of predators, starvation and cold. The novel lavishes attention on the mechanics of dealing with deprivation, the effort and ingenuity it takes to do something like pulverise and consume the soft insides of tree bark. She navigates these trials more or less successfully – repairing her boots, catching fish, foraging for berries and so on. She even manages to weave a basket out of dried reeds and construct a shelter sturdy enough to weather an ice storm.

The longer the girl spends in the woods, the more convinced she becomes that the European Christian worldview exemplified by the minister is predicated on fallacies and corruption. Even the game she plays, inventing names for what she sees, reveals itself to have biblical roots and sinister implications:

Name after name, Adam felt his dominion tipping into domination until he believed that he owned the world by naming the things in it and that all the things of the world were his to do with as he wished.

This was how adults granted power to themselves over babies, and how babies without understanding surrendered themselves to adults until they were old enough to name others. How, in coming to this country, her fellow Englishmen believed they were naming this place and this people for the first time, and how it conferred upon them dominion here in this place, although, she was now surprised at her thought, surely the people of this place had their own names for things. But one name takes precedence over another, and so the wheel of power turned.

This is a profound insight for her, if somewhat didactically formulated. As the days pass, a combination of pain – her feet are black and oozing, her head is badly wounded, she’s starving to death – and the indifferent majesty of her surroundings begins to transform her Christian feeling into ecstatic animism. Though she is suffering, she is also, in this encounter with the world, more awake. Epiphanies arrive in the form of fish:

There was something in the shining glimpse, the liquid black eye of the fish gazing up at her as it passed out of the shadow into the light that made her say, Yes, aloud, and gasp. There was an element in the trembling intensity of this vision so unlike the other most dazzling moments of her life that, for a breath, it pierced the little cloud of dullness in which she normally moved through her days. And it seemed to her that she could almost see something now moving beneath the everyday, the daily, the grey and oppressive stuff of the self, something more like an intricate geometry that lived beneath the surface of the material world. And this swift and gorgeous and too-rare strike to the heart was just like when one of the goldsmith’s apprentices beat and beat at a tiny lump of gold until all across the marble table on which they worked an astonishing thin gold leaf spread outwards; the vividest moments were when the leaf tore and one could see the cold sharp veins of the marble before the leaf was healed again by beating.

Here Groff seems to be drawing from American Transcendentalists – the girl, a nobody, observes nature like Emerson’s transparent eyeball – and various European poets. This passage recalls John Donne (‘like gold to airy thinness beat’) and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘instress’, the term he used to describe the act of witnessing and recognising the ‘inscape’ – or holy and unique quality – of all natural phenomena.

The girl infuses Christian morality into her shocks of instress. ‘It is a moral failure to miss the profound beauty of the world, said the voice in her mind. Yes, she said aloud, for now she did see the sin in full.’ Groff’s syntax moves between an approximation of 17th-century English and a sharper, more contemporary style. Snatches of remembered dialogue sometimes seem to come straight out of Shakespeare (‘Methinks I spy something Moorish in her make,’ someone says, looking at the girl’s skin). The girl’s internal monologue occasionally corresponds to principles of 17th-century grammar (‘she was unlettered but was deep devout’), but at other times she sounds like the narrator of any 21st-century novel (she thinks many things to herself ‘grimly’). Her inner language system may be all over the place, but when she is looking closely at nature we see Groff’s lyricism at its most commanding: ‘It seemed that the hail had been a freak finger of ice in the clouds poking inland from the ocean, pointing down at the girl herself.’

Groff’s goal seems to be less an unmaking of Christianity than a call to spiritual attention, particularly towards the non-human world. She has said that one of her favourite pieces of writing is a famous passage from Middlemarch:

And we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind. And perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Groff’s interest, in both Matrix and The Vaster Wilds, seems to be training a reader to pay attention, even when it’s painful. The girl can be a standard-bearer for this message – her interiority can deliver it – precisely because she is one of the overlooked ‘not unusual’ things of the world, unimportant and, on inspection, extraordinary. If there is a catechism in the alternative theology that Groff is building, its first question is: what are you not seeing? The answer: almost everything.

Like The Vaster Wilds, Matrix is narrated in the close third person, but often we become aware of an omniscient narrator alongside the protagonist, who observes her as she makes her way through the world and sees the bigger picture as she cannot. After Marie remakes the forest around the abbey into a labyrinth which unwanted challengers to her authority cannot penetrate, she looks on her creation with satisfaction. The omniscient narrator interjects:

What she does not see behind her is the disturbance her nuns have left in the forest, the families of squirrels, of dormice, of voles, of badgers, of stoats who have been chased in confusion from their homes, the trees felled that held green woodpeckers, the pine martens, the mistle thrushes and the long-tailed tits, the woodcocks and capercaillies chased from their nests, the willow warbler vanished in panic from these lands for the time being; it will take a half century to lure these tiny birds back. She sees only the human stamp upon the place. She considers it good.

In Matrix the human tendency to see things only in part dooms the characters to miss what is truly good. Something similar is suggested in The Vaster Wilds. At one pivotal moment, the girl is hiding in a cave near a waterfall and glimpses a huge bear that has stopped to rest nearby. Were she among her own people, she would never get this close to such an animal: it would be killed. But now, invisible and alone, she watches the bear as it sits and gazes at the water playing over the rocks with an expression on its face that she understands to be awe. The girl is stunned. ‘For if a bear could feel awe, then a bear could certainly know God … and this thought made her shake, for if the gospel was changeable between species, then God was not immoveable. Then God was changeable according to the body God spoke through.’ She keeps thinking until, terrified, she realises: ‘Perhaps God is all. Perhaps God already lived within all.’ And if God is all and everywhere, she thinks, then God is also nothing and nowhere, ‘a nought, an abscess, a great and teeming hole’.

This hole, the girl thinks, is the vacuum that the men of her culture are hoping to fill; they ‘grew up twisted inside around this nothing’ and became intent on dominating the world to escape it. As her journey continues, she grows more ideologically alienated from mankind, more aligned with the woods around her. This trajectory is framed as a kind of spiritual purification and she begins to have eschatological visions, like medieval saints and martyrs whose sufferings elevated their insight (another recurrent interest of Groff’s). What she sees is the end of the world of man: ‘All the human noises in her city diminished to silence, the bells stopped pealing.’ This future is brutal, ‘kites screaming and pecking at the bodies of the dead’, but also Edenic, a restoration to a prelapsarian time. Or not so much prelapsarian as prehuman: ‘In ten years, all traces of human habitation in the counties of the world would be grown over with vegetation and the animals gambolling, delighted without the greatest palest predator to stop them. And Eden would overtake the world and the mistake of man would be forgot.’ The girl does not mind that this would require her erasure too. Even enlightened, she cannot escape what she is: a human, an intruder on the land.

Groff is not telling a new story – in fact, it’s a very old one – but it’s inflected by the anxieties and politics of the present moment. Would it have been better if humans just … vanished? At what point was it too late to stop the machinery of the Anthropocene that now seems certain to destroy the world? Groff’s parables locate the seeds of this as far back as 17th-century colonialism, and even the convents of 12th-century Europe. The fear we have now is as old as fairy tales, just as frightening and just as simple. The question Groff poses is whether we understand the story we’re in, whether we can correctly name our own place in it.

‘And is there nothing that you could have done to change the final shape of your story?’ a hallucinated voice asks the girl. She replies with another question, or pair of questions: ‘I who was born nothing and am nothing? With this small body and this small life?’ In this parable the girl realises that, despite her situation, there was something she could have done. But by the time she figures this out, the story is over.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences