Emily Bitto's debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize, gathering an impressive harvest of literary plaudits. In fact, many of them occupy the first five pages of her second novel, Wild Abandon, which is enough to test the nerve of any listlessly locked down reviewer, even before noticing her top shelf CV.
Bitto has a Masters in Literary Studies, a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, a decade of teaching creative writing, and currently holds a tutorship at the Faber Writing Academy. A - perhaps whimsical - last line adds that she is also the co-owner of Carlton wine bar Heartattack and Vine.
A second novel is often flagged as a psychological and professional hurdle for any writer, even one as well-prepared as Bitto, and likely regarded as a test of resolve, inviting self-doubt, particularly if the first has been a run-away success. Wild Abandon glows with confidence, as it spins a densely worded modern parable of a young Australian man escaping the pain of rejection.
The paragraphs are long, sometimes very long, and crammed with so much detail - including odd and seemingly incongruous words - that I found myself having to backtrack to avoid getting lost. No Hemingway-esque sparse prose here (not that this bothers me, I've never liked it). More Cormac McCarthy perhaps, creating an intense, and maybe a tad self-aware, personal style.
Will is 22 but already beset by suspicions that life is passing him by. He flees Australia, haunted by the perceived injustice of a break-up with Laura, setting off on a "journey from innocence to experience" and determined to face whatever happens. Touching base with Paul, a family friend in New York, he is soon provided with drug dealer access, as if such things are part of making up for lost time.
Time then becomes hazy for Will, as he catches glimpses of the Big Apple, blurred by a medley of Paul's friends, including a few powerfully edgy women, inclined to see "men's trauma" as an attempt to "feminise" masculinity. Will remains hollowed out and lonely.
Fleeing again, he hires a car with Route 66 in mind, but lands up in Ohio, with a troubled Vietnam vet, Wayne, who runs an unofficial zoo of seriously dangerous animals. This ends badly of course, with Will returning home a little older but a lot wiser.
Bitto concedes that she was "initially inspired" by real events in Ohio in 2011, when exotic animals were released and subsequently killed by local law enforcement. The sheer narrative force of this rites-of-passage novel left me exhausted, but then I guess, most things do nowadays.
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