For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our third review is of Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne written by Roy den Boer.
Joe Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon takes place in Blaen-y-Lin, a commune in Wales that appears to be on its last legs. Membership is down, there are almost no children to provide a future for the commune, and resentments have been building up toward the boiling point for over seventeen years. The novel mostly focuses on the main family in the commune. Don, the father, and Freya, the mother, are founding members of the commune. Their seventeen year old daughter, Kate, was conceived around the beginning of the commune and her impending birth provided impetus to quickly get the commune up and running. Their eleven year old son, Albert, is one of only two children left in the commune. The main characters of the novel are Kate, Albert and Don. Freya is second tier along with Patrick, another founding member of the commune.
The 336 pages of Wild Abandon have to carry all three of the main characters, these two secondary characters and then another three to five characters that each have their own thing going for the six month period (maybe more) that we follow these characters. The narrative flicks back and forth, mostly between Don, Kate and Albert but switching to a few others when deemed necessary. Add a chapter dedicated to a flashback pre-commune and there isn’t a lot of real estate to go around.
Let’s take Kate’s story. Kate is going to an actual outside-the-commune school for the first time in her life and is forced to test the ideals her parents forced on her. Is she trying to prove them right or trying to prove them wrong? Does Kate really know? The novel chooses to follow Kate for moments of action rather than reflection. This decision gives the novel a nice propulsive feel that lends to readability, but also robs it of any emotional heft. Any moments to actually analyze the implications of Kate’s actions will require you to take a break from reading and really think about what is happening between the shards of story we are getting. Is this subtle or vacuous? Is this the author allowing us to think for ourselves or is it the author simply sidestepping the ‘hard’ parts? One can go either way on these questions, but I came away from the book feeling like the book had been emotionally insincere. Wild Abandon ends up reading like something much lighter than the actual content requires.
Big questions are raised in Wild Abandon, but big questions aren’t really explored. The uneven tone is enhanced when the bookjakcet hails Wild Abandon as some hilarious comedy, when the actual characters are all going through very sad and uncertain phases. The style of writing provides a sense of levity that the story might be better without.
The tone isn’t where Wild Abandon lost me, though. It lost me by mistreating Don. Don Riley is the patriarch of the family and de facto leader of this leaderless commune. The novel emphasizes from the very beginning how Don corrects others and how he gives longwinded speeches that haven’t changed for over a decade. Freya wants to leave him, Patrick hates him, Kate is embarrased by him and Albert feels abandoned by him. Everybody hates Don. I did not hate Don. Don has his flaws, because he’s human. All the other characters have flaws too, but somehow Don is punished throughout the book for all his sins. The commune that he built is falling apart, his marriage is falling apart, Patrick absolutely hates him and his daughter isn’t talking to him. All Don tries to do is bring people back together. He tries to fix every situation presented to him in the most positive manner available and somehow the book still doesn’t seem on his side at any point. As his storyline played out I felt evermore distanced from Wild Abandon. It seemed like Dunthorne wanted to me to feel something I wasn’t feeling.
Albert, the eleven-year-old, is feeling restless as his sisters is going off the school and spending less time with him. He becomes obsessed with the idea that the world is going to end soon under the influence of Marina, a somewhat recent member of the commune and a kook. His storyline seems to be setting up some end-of-the-world scenario that doesn’t jibe with any of the other storylines. When entrenched in his narrative you wonder: is the apocalypse really coming? But it never feels convincing, because all the other plotlines would have to be abandoned suddenly in a manner that would make little narrative sense. So you’re left with Albert spinning his wheels for a long time before going out of control. It just didn’t connect with the rest of the novel for me.
Kate’s or Albert’s stories would have worked fine if they didn’t have to coexist with the others and were given room to breathe and develop, but Wild Abandon feels overstuffed. There’s a lot going on and it doesn’t quite fit together. I ended up feeling like the author liked the idea for the setting and couldn’t think of one fully realized character and overcompensated with five half baked ones. The first chapter shows that it could have worked, because we switch back and forth quite smoothly as all the characters somehow interact. We’re given their actions, how they got there and how they feel. It works fine, but as the characters move apart physically and emotionally there’s simply too much ground to cover effectively. If you’re completely on one page with Dunthorne on all these characters, then this book would work extremely well for you. I needed a little more illumination and Dunthorne simply doesn’t provide that. Wild Abandon is very readible, but not very worthy of reading.
Roy den Boer