cover image The Vaster Wilds

The Vaster Wilds

Lauren Groff. Riverhead, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-41839-0

Groff’s extraordinary latest (after Matrix) tracks the life of an adolescent servant girl who flees a Jamestownesque settlement in colonial America and sets out across the wilderness. Traveling in winter, the unnamed narrator sustains herself by hunting and gathering. Despite the harsh conditions, she delights in the natural scenery, which Groff depicts with wrenching beauty (“she saw in the dim and silvery light the wind lifting lighter snow and sculpting it into a shining city with rooftops and chimneys and a steeple and even the smoke of fires merrily ascending from the chimneys toward heaven”). Through the girl’s memories, the reader learns she was adopted at four from a parish poorhouse in England by a well-off woman and her husband and was tormented by the couple’s older son. Several years later, the husband dies and the woman marries an ambitious minister. They force the girl to accompany them to the New World and care for their newborn baby. The colony turns out to be a godforsaken place wracked by illness, lack of food, and violent confrontations with Indigenous people. There are many exciting episodes—the narrator encounters a bear, a wolf, and an unruly former Jesuit priest who also subsists in the wild—and the staggering ending reveals the details surrounding her escape. Groff builds and maintains suspense on multiple levels, while offering an unflinching portrayal of her heroine’s desperation and will to survive. This is a triumph. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency. (Sept.)