Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wild Abandon

In Wild Abandon, Joe Dunthorne has created a community that every reader will start to feel a part of. In response to the recession of the early 1990s, married couple Freya and Don, along with a small group of friends, decided to form a self-sustaining, secular settlement in the Welsh countryside. Now, 30 years later, Blaen-y-llyn and its remaining inhabitants are being tested in new ways. The only other original residents are Janet, a successful jewellery designer who returns to the community for six months each year, and Patrick, who passes his time suspecting everyone of trying to get rid of him, loving Janet silently, and trying to get high.

Freya and Don’s two children, Kate and Albert, are confronting reality in their own way. Kate is finishing high school, and is compelled to leave the community in order to study for her final exams. Being a teenager at Blaen-y-llyn isn’t what you might expect: Kate is studious, responsible and emotionally mature. Delightfully, she finds the whole idea of taking drugs offensively boring, because that’s the kind of thing one’s parents do. Because Albert refuses to wash while Kate is away, he steadily acquires a layer of grime and filth. Albert takes little notice of this, because he is fully aware that the world is about to end. And when it does, he will be prepared. He and a chosen few will be ready. Meanwhile, Freya is becoming increasingly convinced that she no longer wants to be married to Don.

The title of the novel suggests the kind of hippy, unfocused, free-loving mayhem that the characters from outside the community are determined to believe in. Sure, there are only two mobile phones, which are never turned on, there is an Ad-Guard to prevent the children from seeing television advertisements, and there is even a geodesic dome. But in truth, this is a collective of people trying with varying levels of enthusiasm to stick to the values which led them to found it in the first place. For the most part, their weeks are carefully structured, with everyone required to do their fair share of work and look after everyone else. The title seems to hint at the manner in which the community is now starting to be abandoned.

‘Albert was hopping from foot to foot now. The phone was his domain, his contact with the outside, and he defended it fiercely. He could often be seen sprinting across the yard in his socks, skidding into the hallway, grabbing the newel post to alter his trajectory – skating the tiles – then plucking the handset from its cradle, hardly out of breath as he delivered one of his lines: Good morning, Blaen-y-llyn, if you speak to one of us, you speak to us all. Or sometimes just breathing heavily down the line.’

This is a warm, funny novel, and most of all, it is an inclusive novel to be enjoyed. Not many of us will ever live in precisely this type of community, but all readers of Wild Abandon will be able to picture themselves joining in its activities.

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.