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Book Review: The Word for Woman is Wilderness

During the June/ July vac, I set myself a mission. I would commit as much of my time possible to reading. Not reading for school but reading in the sense of how I used to devour books by the hundreds before I came to uni. In the course of those five weeks I just did nothing. I read until three in the morning, I read until I fell asleep, I read until my eyes must have resembled shrivelled raisins. However, out of all the books I read, there was one book I really couldn’t get over.  Written by Abi Andrews, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, stuck with me for days.

The novel centers on the narrative of 19-year-old Erin, who has never really left her small English home, but has watched adventurers like Bear Grylls and Cristopher McCandless and wonders why it is always men who get to go on all the wilderness adventures. So, she sets out a plan, a journey. Challenging the archetype of the rugged male explorer (Christopher McCandless, Robinson Crusoe, etc.), she sets out on a journey to Alaska – a one-woman mission. Finally ending up in a cabin in Denali, she spends a month in the frozen Alaskan wilderness to see what great truth she can uncover there as a woman, hidden, absolutely all alone. During her travels, Erin makes wry observations about everything from quantum mechanics, Cartesian philosophy to the Cold War Space race with continuous references to David Attenborough documentaries and the words of environmental activist Rachel Carson. It’s an impressive array of subjects to compact into one book but since Erin spends so much of her time being in a state of solitude, it leads us to see why the trip was undertaken. During her time spent on the road, hitchhiking, walking and running from nasty truck drivers (red flag alert) Erin starts to question everything: her upbringing, her inner psychology, the male perspective, the male gaze, and the male race as they exist and dominate all fields of thought.

I think the reason why this book left such a lasting impression is because it provides a fresh take on the adventure novel genre as a whole. Reading about Erin’s experiences with sexual assault, her upbringing, family structure and views on the world and life itself as a 19-year-old in the 21st century is so much more relatable than reading a book of the same genre published 50 years ago. Women are faced with the sad reality that there are things they are restricted to never really being able to fully experience. I dream of being able to hitchhike in some great unknown place but as a female there are reasons as to why this may prove to be a bit compromising to my safety.

Traveling, exploring and trekking across some great vast unknown. These have always been inherent symbols in coming of age novels and movies, but they’ve been told from a predominantly male perspective. Until now, that is. Abi Andrews broke that chain, planted a flag and marked new terrain with this novel. She keeps it honest throughout, and though the book can feel a bit like a whole bunch of ideas just crammed into one book, it’s real and true, much like how our brains work. I can only say I hope novels like this one follow suit. So, for all the adventurous souls out there, this novel provides all the reasons as to why they say solo- adventuring is really the best way to get to know yourself.

Amber is a final year architecture student at the University of Cape Town. A self-confessed aesthete and avid writer/reader- she is passionate about social justice with hopes of healing the world. 
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