Lauren Groff writes to alleviate her angst about aspects of life she finds hard to confront. Climatic disaster, misogyny, spousal death, flawed utopias and pandemics have all fuelled the plots of books as disparate as Fates and Furies, her 2015 contemporary two-hander about marital verisimilitude, and Matrix, which features a 12th-century feminist abbess based on the little-known poet Marie de France. Yet neither is a bleak read; indeed, Barack Obama selected Fates and Furies as his 2015 pick. Groff’s intoxicating 2018 story collection Florida threw the strains of motherhood into this mix: the mother in ‘Ghosts and Empties’ who laces her running shoes to pace the streets because she has ‘somehow become a women who yells’ and she does not want to become a woman who yells remains seared on my brain.
In her fifth novel, The Vaster Wilds, the American author turns her attention to colonial injustice in a prophetic tale about a servant girl who flees a blighted English settlement in 17th-century Jamestown. The girl, who has committed an unnamed sin, is emaciated after months of famine.
‘Into the night the girl ran and ran, and the cold and the dark and the wilderness and her fear and the depth of her losses, all things together, dwindled the self she had once known down to nothing.’ Groff writes in prose that sparkles like the forest after the storm of freezing rain that forces her heroine to take shelter under the roots of an upturned elm.
Like Marie in Matrix, the girl has visions but hers are fever dreams, plaguing her nights and confusing her days, a literary device Groff uses to flash back to the girl’s former life in England and to cast what passes for plot further forward.