Book Review: In Wilderness: A Novel, Diane Thomas (2015)

July 15th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Twisted Anti-Romance Set Against an Unspoiled Forest Wilderness

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Trigger warning for rape, suicide, and racist and sexist language. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

Dr. Third Opinion sighs. He leans back in his creaky chair, stares past her into some middle distance to her left. “A hundred, hundred-twenty years ago, we used to tell patients like you, patients we had no hope of curing, to go west, move to the country, take the Grand Tour of Europe. Anything. A change of scene. After all this time, we can’t do any better.”

“Were they healed? The ones who went away?” Hates her voice’s horrid, hopeful whine.

He shrugs. “Who knows? I doubt most of their physicians ever heard from them again.”

Katherine Clopton had a blessed life: A loving husband, a nice house in Atlanta, a much-loved baby on the way, and a lucrative job at an advertising agency (even if she was forced to pass her creative work off as Tim’s. This was the “good ole days” of Mad Men, after all.) And then she lost it seemingly overnight. As quickly as a city pesticide truck could sweep through her neighborhood, Kate’s health took a nosedive; she suffered a miscarriage; and Tim up and left her.

Almost four years have passed, yet Kate’s not over any of it: her health problems least of all. What started out as migraines – crippling but not fatal – has snowballed into a mysterious constellation of symptoms: nausea, weakness, non-localized pain, lethargy, and forgetfulness. Her body is failing to assimilate food, her doctors say; she’s slowly starving. Given just six months to live, Kate impulsively purchases a rustic cabin in the Atlanta wilderness, sight unseen. Within weeks she’s sold her share in the ad agency, vacated her suburban home, and headed into the woods to die.

Only something quite unexpected happens: there in the pristine, virgin wilderness, Kate’s health improves. Flourishes, even. Except for her semi-regular supply runs to town, that is: then the dizziness, sickness, and confusion return. After the first few trips, Kate finally pieces it together: it’s civilization that’s killing her. What once looked to be her salvation is now a prison.

But little does Kate know that she’s not alone in the woods. The former occupant of the “Old Man’s” cabin, twenty-year-old Vietnam veteran Danny McLean, is living his own form of self-imposed exile. Suffering from PTSD – triggered by witnessing the violent death of his best/only friend in Vietnam; Danny still carries one of Jimbo’s bones, lodged in his thigh like human shrapnel – Danny no longer trusts himself around other people.

Displaced from the cabin by Kate’s arrival, he’s taken up residence in “Gatsby’s” house, a ruined mansion set high on Panther Mountain. And he’s watching her; has been from the first moment “the city bitch” set foot in the forest’s magical green rooms. She becomes an object of interest, then obsession; and before the story’s done, these two damaged individuals will enter into a passionate affair that’s highly dysfunctional at best. Forced together by circumstances, neither one can untether themselves from this toxic relationship.

In Wilderness is like watching a train wreck: it’s almost impossible to look away, even as your complete lack of will and decorum make you feel like a shameless vulture. It’s certainly a compelling read, but it’d be a mistake to say that I enjoyed it.

Danny is seriously fucked up, and I’m not referring to his PTSD – which isn’t something of his own doing, and makes him deserving of sympathy, not scorn. If the PTSD was his only issue, then yeah, I’d be rooting for this couple all the way. But he’s also a racist (everything is “gook” this and “gook” that), and a virulent misogynist (women are all “bitches” and “whores”), which is demonstrated in full force by his relationship with Kate.

Danny’s first instinct is to spy on Kate: stalk her like prey – or like a soldier at war. Watching from afar quickly escalates to spending the night outside of her cabin, just so he can listen to her breathe. When, having survived longer than expected and thus run out of supplies, Kate uses her Mustang to drive into town, Danny panics; thinks she up and left for good. (How dare she!) And so he vandalizes her car – strips it completely. But hey, at least he left her a cart in which to lug her groceries back from town. What a peach!

** begin spoilers **

During the first half of the book, I worried that Kate and Danny would eventually hook up and go on to have a healthy and fulfilling relationship – thus framing Danny’s stalking behavior as romantic, as is too often the case in pop culture. A show of loyalty and devotion! Thankfully, this does not happen. After the watcher gets his woman, so to speak, Danny’s abusive behavior only continues to escalate; and Thomas ultimately identifies the relationship as unhealthy. Yet this doesn’t make the downward spiral any easier to stomach.

While together, Danny becomes possessive, controlling, and manipulative. Bossy. Bullying.

When an acquaintance from her previous life approaches Kate in town, Danny confronts him – and then promises Kate that he’ll kill any man who “bothers” her. She receives an unexpected letter in her post office box, and Danny tries to snatch it away from her, thinking it’s from ‘that Atlanta guy.’ He hectors her into performing sexual acts in public. He very emphatically doesn’t take “no” for an answer. He insists that “no” means “yes.” He “has sex” with Kate while she’s sleeping. (Pro tip: this is rape.) On one occasion, he tries (but fails) to hit her.

And mommy issues? This boy’s got a few. Grandmother issues, too. He buys Kate a red flannel nightgown just like Memaw had, and when she tries it on at his insistence, he finds the sight so arousing that it immediately leads to sex.

The final straw comes when Kate realizes that Danny’s been slipping her Pennyroyal tea – his Memaw’s secret weapon – in order to abort the fetus she wasn’t yet aware that she was carrying. (Reproductive abuse FTW!) The doctors told Kate she was infertile; Danny thinks she’s a “lying bitch.”

This latest affront spurs Kate to finally excise Danny from her life. When he refuses to leave, she shoots him (not-fatally, in the shoulder). His response? It’s true love! “Loves him so hard she fucking shoots him.” No means yes to the nth degree. Jesus, take the wheel!

** end spoilers **

So…yeah. Though I was unable to put this one down, I can’t quite say that I liked it, or would even read it again if given a do-over. It’s just not my cup of tea, and the unsatisfying climax didn’t help much.

Although I did find the nature writing enchanting. I also love that Thomas spotlights two illnesses – PTSD and Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) – circa 1966, in the days before proper diagnosis and treatment. (The DSM first classified PTSD as an anxiety disorder in 1980, while MCS is still a subject of debate.) Katherine’s journals in particular (daily observations that read like haikus) are enchanting as well. (More please!) And the subplot involving Carlisle-Colorado, which plays out in the epilogue, hints at the tension between conservation and development (“progress”) in an interesting way.

This isn’t to say that you won’t enjoy In Wilderness, particularly if you’re heavy into psychological thrillers; for me, I think it’s just a case of right book, wrong reader.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Kate suffers from a mysterious constellation of symptoms – migraines, dizziness, nausea, confusion, fatigue, memory loss, generalized pain – that today some people call Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS, though the diagnosis is still a matter of debate). After her doctor gives her six months to live – her body is failing to “assimilate” food and thus she’s slowly starving – she goes into the woods to die. She tries to commit suicide once (with pills, which she throws up) and contemplates it often after that (she brings a gun for that purpose).

While living in the forest, Kate meets Danny, a twenty-year-old Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD. After the violent death of his best friend Jimbo – during which his brains and other various body parts exploded all over Danny – Danny lost it and couldn’t stop screaming for a week. He was discharged and now lives in self-exile in the woods, believing himself to be a danger to others. During a lightning storm, he has flashbacks to the war.

Animal-friendly elements: When it comes to dietary habits (among other things), Kate and Danny are at odds. The forest-loving (“worshiping,” at times) Kate survives mostly on plants, while Danny primarily consumes meat. (Although she doesn’t seem to have a problem eating a fish he cooked for her.) She gardens, he hunts. She watches animals, while he stalks them. She gives life, and he takes it away. When Kate becomes pregnant, the taste and even smell of meat makes her sick, in what seems a weird throwback to Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. Like most of the book, I’m not really sure what to make of it.

There’s a weird scene in which Danny, dressing a freshly killed doe, orders Kate to strip and then paints her with the deer’s blood.


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