‘Cetaceans are women’s allies in the war against patriarchy because patriarchy holds the cetaceans down with us,’ explains the earnest and slightly irritating Erin, nineteen-year-old protagonist of Abi Andrews’s debut novel. ‘Orcas travel in matriarchal pods,’ she elaborates, by way of explanation. ‘The root of the word dolphin, delphus, means womb.’
In the journals that became Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach.’ Thoreau was by no means the first to celebrate the transcendental purity of the ‘wilderness’ or the spiritual benefits of an outdoorsy survivalism, but his 1854 work helped to print these values onto the American self-image. In 1992, a heavily annotated copy of Walden was found alongside the remains of Chris McCandless, who walked out of his privileged California upbringing and hitched to Alaska. And Into the Wild, the 2007 film based on his journals, has built for McCandless a cult following and a divisive legacy. Was he a messianic figure akin to Thoreau, inspiring a generation of travellers to reject technology in favour of a lived purity in nature? Or was he a fool with a merely sentimental understanding of the wilderness he idealised?
Andrews’s novel participates in this survivalist legacy, though uneasily. Erin has left her parents’ house to escape the ‘grid-owned and regimented spaces’ of the British Midlands. She’s watched Into the Wild and read Walden, as well as On the Road and The Call of the Wild. She wants in on the tradition. As a young feminist, however, she’s wary of the ambivalent heritage of these ‘straight white men’, and though intoxicated with the wilderness narrative, she can’t help but imagine ‘how it would have been different if the guy had been a girl’. She cites a cohort of female, proto-feminist adventurers in passing – Calamity Jane, Freya Stark, Nellie Bly – but these women simply do not compel Erin as does, say, the Unabomber, whose eco-terrorist manifesto she knows in detail.
The journey, on cargo ships and lorries, via Iceland, Greenland, and along the trans-Canadian highway, forces Erin to acknowledge that a large part of any female tradition must involve avoiding the violence of men. She holds her back to the door to keep a drunk from her hostel bedroom; rebuffs the romantic attentions of a (much) older mentor; runs away from a lorry driver after he gropes her at a gas station. Sitting alone in a diner, Erin contemplates how difficult it is to maintain ‘the small autonomy of just being alone in public’ since ‘the female body is a lonely body, an invitation’.
Despite these affecting episodes, I have to confess that I was never quite sure if Andrews had written a work of parody – specifically of an idealistic young adult: enthusiastic but misguided; desperate to reach a kind of pastoral enlightenment while tiptoeing around indigenous culture. Her reasoning is careful, but her conclusions odd: after musing that all words are an imposition on the wilderness, just as gender is an artificial boundary, Erin burns her map to liberate herself. She resolves to consider her surroundings using her ‘third eye’, which she explains, ‘really only means feminist perspective’. Erin enacts her revisionist feminism by catching a fish with a makeshift rod that uses a tampon for a float. She sees a bear and walks towards it until she can see its teeth: ‘I realised I would never be the same.’ Is Andrews subtly undermining her narrator? If so, it’s funny.
In between the travelling, Erin provides short essayistic sermons on topics from the Apollo moon landing to the gas-particle explanation for the northern lights. In a typical aside, Erin argues casually that the capitalist propositions of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations influenced the hierarchical survival-of-the-fittest theory of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She draws our attention instead to Lynn Margulis, the scientist who emphasised the importance of symbiosis, a more inclusive model of biological collaboration between different cells and organisms like gut bacteria. Andrews brings a wide-ranging intellect to the page, and at their best, these anecdotes are well-argued and enlightening. Though often the scholarly digressions seem rather unrelated, and, in the hands of her nineteen-year-old protagonist, can feel ornamental, even forced.
Andrews’s novel seems unsure of its tone, and Erin’s attempt to reclaim the adventure story from its colonial implications, and refashion it in feminism’s image, is always teetering on the farcical. Nevertheless, she does well to highlight the moral contradictions that attach themselves to a modern-day traveller, keen to behave ethically in a compromised world.