I couldn’t wait to read Joe Dunthorne’s second novel Wild Abandon after seeing him read a section of his upcoming novel at a publisher event. I was quite charmed by his delivery of an amusing conversation between a mother trying to divert her son from his obsession that the world is going to end. I haven’t read Submarine, Dunthorne’s highly successful debut novel-turned-film although it is definitely going on my reading list now. This might come as a surprise based on my review, because it didn’t blow me away as I had hoped, but I actually loved Dunthorne’s writing. How confusing!
Wild Abandon is set on a secluded communal farm, founded twenty years before as much because of circumstance as because of the inhabitants’ desire for a sustainable and peaceful existence. Kate at seventeen finds herself rebelling against her parent’s lifestyle while her brother Albert who is eleven years old is resisting any kind of change and finds escape in preparations for the end of the world (impending apocalypse has been announced by another slightly loopy community member) and also harassing his sister. The novel puts a magnifying glass on the cracks in the community and exposes the messed up relationships within it with a darkly-comic tone.
Wild Abandon is a wonderfully written book. Dunthorne’s observance of human behaviour and the way that he depicts the intense emotional struggles of both the younger members of the community and those of the older, disillusioned characters is incredibly astute. He really finds the tender parts of human concerns and exposes them in a funny and endearing way. The relationship between Kate and Albert is intense and discomforting but also very very funny at times. Dunthorne strikes a keenly intelligent balance between small personal tragedies and the inadvertent comedy in them. Although Dunthorne has his own distinct style, if I had to make comparisons I would liken the way that he focuses in on this small community to that in which authors like Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge explored campus life in nineteen-seventies British universities.
This is where the problem lies for me. The key themes of the novel around growing up and adult disenchantment are universal, but the setting of the commune just didn’t work for me. Although it did highlight how the same issues are actually at play in wider society, it was so focussed on this little microcosm, that it felt a little bit specialist, not quite relatable to me. I was left feeling a bit ‘so what?’ about what was a really quite a clever novel.
So although I didn’t care that much about the situation in Wild Abandon, I loved Dunthorne’s treatment of it and his warm, funny writing style.