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Marina Kemp’s Wilderness Destroying review – dark family secrets | Fiction

Marina Kemp’s Wilderness Destroying review – dark family secrets | Fiction

A A stifling August in Sicily in 1999 provides the initial setting for Marina Kemp’s powerful and gripping second novel. The palace of the revered novelist and his patriarch, Don Travers – his four children; his quiet, apparently resigned wife Lydia; and a steady guest list of the great and the good, the influential, the useful and the rising – is housed in the rambling villa Il Frantoio, where the family stays every summer.

The youngest Travers daughter, Nemony, aged 10, is our first and main narrator, feeling left out, as the youngest children often do. The second is Zoe Goodison, a young writer whose first novel has recently been published to great acclaim. She has been brought into the enchanted circle of Il Frantoio by Don; Don’s interest in her may or may not be sexual. Zoe is estranged from her past, in a toxic relationship, restless, prickly, proud and sleepless. Like Nemony, she lives in the storyteller’s position on the edge of things.

Summer begins as usual, with the siblings—Tree, 19, followed by Malachy, Etta, and Nemony—circling the guests who are their rivals, judging each as friend or foe, vain or annoying, unimportant or dangerous. It’s a pattern that has always kept the children tightly knit, but this year it’s different. Their mother, Lydia, who ran away from her Amish community at age 19 but never seems to leave it behind, subordinating her own needs and desires to those of her family, has cancer, and this could be her last summer. What’s more, the beautiful, irresistible Tree is no longer a child, and as she begins her negotiations with the adult world, the siblings’ loyalties come under strain, with consequences that are shattered.

We rejoin the story 20 years later in London: “That’s when you’ll be really interesting,” the Don told Zoe in Il Frantoio with tearful contempt. The Travers family was torn apart long ago, after a disaster that had been rumored in the summer, but whose origins and mechanisms remain unclear. Nemony is dealing with the stresses of new motherhood, compounded by a shaky relationship and the memory of his own devoted mother. He encounters and seemingly befriends Zoe, now a successful novelist living in enviable freedom near the Travers’ childhood home. But Zoe has her own story to follow, and as the two grow closer, what remains of Nemony’s family’s precarious unity is threatened with a violent and irreversible rupture.

Novels about writing novels carry a certain amount of risk. They can be pompous, surprising and cunningly meticulous, forcing the reader to retrace their steps in the pursuit of objectivity while gleefully manipulating the only truth: that it’s all made up. Kemp, who was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writers’ Award for her debut novel Nightingale in 2020, deftly avoids the first two of these pitfalls while triumphantly embracing the last.

Kemp asks who owns the truth of lived experience. If Lydia chooses not to speak of the harm done to her, does anyone else have the right to reveal it? If the same family secret provokes anger in one victim and shame in another, who owns the copyright? And if Zoe tells the best story, can she exploit the Travers family’s unhappiness for her own ends?

The tension Kemp applies to this tightrope is key to his success. By keeping all his narratives in balance and leaving the final decision up to the reader, he examines the creative process and its losses meticulously and mercilessly: he exposes Don as an aging Prospero and a gaslighting tyrant, but he also reveals the ruthlessness and betrayal Zoe uses to gain the access she wants. And our reward is the miraculous power of the written word, the story shaped and told through Lydia – barely speaking to those closest to her, but finally putting her story in writing – and Kemp’s own masterful skill.

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The Unwilding by Marina Kemp is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from: guardianbookshop.comDelivery charges may apply