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The Wilding by Maria McCann: Don’t start here …

1672. A generation after the Civil War, England is still struggling to return to normal after the bloody conflict. In the village of Spadboro, Jonathan Dymond, a cider maker who lives with his parents, has so far enjoyed a quiet and harmonious life. But the death of his uncle leads Jonathan to secrets which have lain dormant since the war. When Jonathan discovers his dying uncle’s letter to his father, hinting at inheritance and revenge, he becomes determined to unravel the mystery in his family. Under the pretence of making cider, Jonathan goes to stay with his newly widowed and strangely hostile aunt. While he tries to make sense of his own family, Jonathan becomes involved with his aunt’s servant girl, Tamar, who soon reveals that she has secrets of her own …

I came to this book with huge excitement as I’d read and completely fallen in love with McCann’s magnificent first novel, As Meat Loves Salt. In fact I can say in all honesty that her first book gave me the confidence to write my own much more modern psychological gay novels so I do owe her a great debt.

Therefore I was more than prepared to be bowled over once more by McCann’s second and very heterosexual offering, The Wilding. And, believe me, I tried. I really tried. Perhaps it could never be as good as her first, but I made every effort to be open-minded.

Not to say that the writing here is bad. On the whole it’s fine, though there does appear to be a peculiar lack of the extraordinary passion that drove so many readers through to the devastating denouement of As Meat Loves Salt. There’s not that much about the Civil War aftermath here either, and in all honesty I felt as if the book could have been set at any time up to the 1950s. I’m sure there are people just like this in my mother’s village, though we do at least have cars so we can avoid them. Anyway, the story didn’t feel particularly well-placed in its context.

However it’s the character of Jonathan, the protagonist, that’s the big problem. No, scrub that. He’s a huge problem. Jonathan must be the most boring literary man I’ve ever met. Everything he does, says and thinks is incredibly dull, and I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in either him or his family problems. He’s also slightly creepy during a scene where he follows an unknown girl through the woods for no real reason. Nothing happens to her, thank goodness, but it was still strange. There is one point where the wicked aunt tries to murder Jonathan in the cider vat and I was laughing with joy and egging her on. Dammit, but he’s saved from death by a passing servant, an outcome which I found severely disappointing. As it meant I still had another hundred pages or so of the wretched man to read. Oh, and the one brief sex scene is unfortunately rather laughable too. So much so that I can’t even bring myself to quote it for you. Suffice it to say that it does show Jonathan’s condescension, dullness and shallowness, all at the same time – so if sex scenes are primarily there to reveal character, then it does the trick. I just didn’t want this particular man’s character to be revealed.

In fact at one stage, I was all but hysterical with laughter at Jonathan’s pathetic weakness and even his father loses his temper with him in the middle of the story:

I could no longer meet his eyes. My throat now so swollen as to make speech impossible, I let myself drop forward until I slid off the chair onto my knees, holding up my hands in helpless appeal.
‘Up! Up!’ Father said sharply. ‘Be a man.’

A plea the unfortunate father has to repeat whilst Jonathan continues to blubber. Sigh. Did they not have decent amounts of testosterone in those days? Or maybe, by the evidence here, it’s the women that have the balls. How I did love the evil aunt. Anyone who can ride roughshod through the wretched Dymond family, throw her own sister to the evil intentions of a group of soldiers, and attempt to murder that dull nephew of hers gets my vote. She was the most interesting character around and I’m only sorry that the whole novel is written in Jonathan’s point of view. I would have loved to see more of Aunt Harriet, and indeed the servant girl Tamar. At least the women here do have personalities. Unlike the men. Indeed the fact that Jonathan dislikes Aunt Harriet made her much more attractive, in my opinion:

My aunt was not a woman to throw wide her arms, let alone the doors of her house, to her humbler relations.

Really, I couldn’t blame her. So by the time I came to finding out The Dreadful Truth about the family, I didn’t much care either way. I think the additional trouble with this book is that it’s a short story or novella elongated to novel-length. It could have done with a good two-thirds cut and then the sameness of the story – Jonathan travels to see his aunt, he goes home to his parents, he travels to his aunt again, he goes home to his parents, and so on and so on – would have been less obvious.

The plus point is that I did like the descriptions of cider making at and near the beginning – they were quite fun. And charmingly lyrical too on the odd occasion they appeared. Though of course I am an apple farmer’s daughter so may well be prejudiced here:

My days passed in an innocent intoxication of the senses: the scent of crushed apples, the bite of the bitter-sharp cider they brought to me and the burn of the strong cheese they offered me with my bread …

I also warmed, strangely, to the following throwaway sentence:

A writer is always an unknown quantity, never more so than when the writer is a woman. It is a deceitful sex.

Hey ho. But, really, I’d say if you want to read a Maria McCann, I’d choose that glorious first novel over this. By a long measure. It’s an utter mystery to me why this book has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, but literary prize choices do seem increasingly bizarre these days. I trust that in her third novel, McCann will reinstate the usual passion and power of her prose. And add in a more interesting man or two. One can but hope.

The Wilding by Maria McCann, Faber and Faber 2010, ISBN: 978 0 571 25278 0

[Anne knows second novels are tough, but has an overwhelming allergy to blandness. To add a little passion to your life, please click here]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

18 comments on “The Wilding by Maria McCann: Don’t start here …

  1. RosyB
    March 24, 2010

    Err…so you liked it, then? 🙂

  2. Lisa
    March 24, 2010

    What a shame, Anne. I’ve heard so many good things about McCann’s first novel (in fact, this review has convinced me to buy that one!) but it is so disappointing when a second novel fails to live up to a much-loved first book. As you say, second novels are indeed very tough to write so maybe that explains it. All that pressure and expectation from publishers and readers, and wondering what’s ahead in terms of visibility/review coverage. Plus the stress that can go with the ‘sales’ side of the business. I’ve often heard writers say that the publication process that they experience with their first book can really affect the writing of the second. Although, I’ve no idea if that was the case here, and evidently some people loved The Wilding, judging by that Orange longlisting.

    P.S. I am now intrigued about The Wilding’s one sex scene…

  3. Anne Brooke
    March 24, 2010

    Tee hee, Rosy! 🙂

    And, yes, Lisa – I do think you’re right about publisher pressure for book 2. I can thoroughly recommend book 1 though – hope you enjoy it!

    Axxx

  4. Nikki
    March 24, 2010

    Another one intrigued about the sex scene! I’m wondering about The Dreadful Truth – is it actually as terrible as everyone made out? I hate when you’re reading a book that goes on about some horrific secret that turns out just to be a “Yeah? So?” secret.

  5. annebrooke
    March 24, 2010

    Well, I must admit the DT was a bit obvious to me, Nikki, and I groaned deeply when It Was Finally Revealed (Capitals deliberate …), as I’d assumed it from very early on. Frankly, I thought Jonathan only had himself to blame. Sigh!

    Axxx

  6. Jackie
    March 24, 2010

    Amusing interview, Anne. One wonder how such the same author could’ve written books of such drastically different quality. It almost makes it worse that the first book was so good. I wonder if there was a lot of reworking the story & that’s what made the main character so dull? I mean, that you were actually rooting against him, oh my! I chuckled all the way through your review, you weren’t nasty, but you certainly put Jonathan in his place. lol

  7. The Literary Omnivore
    March 24, 2010

    Oh, I hate it when an author’s second book doesn’t deliver- it almost feels like a little betrayal! But I think I may take a peek at As Meat Loves Salt, if the first was so good…

  8. annebrooke
    March 25, 2010

    Jackie – yes, indeed, it’s a mystery. My mother says the same of Anita Diamant – her first, The Red Tent, was wonderful, but she didn’t like the second novel at all which was very very different. I loved The Red Tent but gave the 2nd a miss on her advice!

    And, TLO, do have a look at As Meat Loves Salt – I think it’s wonderful!

    Axxx

  9. Col
    March 25, 2010

    I really loved As Meat Loves Salt so am sad to hear that this doesn’t live up to expectations, but I’ll still probably buy it at some point.

  10. annebrooke
    March 25, 2010

    Me too, Col – do let us know what you think of this one though if you get it.

    All good wishes!

    Anne

  11. Jodie
    March 25, 2010

    I’m just begining and I’m having to fight to be open minded about it. It’s a mystery to me why an author capable of writing a book like ‘As Meat Loves Salt’ would settle for writing such a typical historical creepy mystery and how she could bear to write such an unbearably nothing hero (Jonathan is dull, thanks for backing up my thoughts and there’s no reason for readers to care about the mystery he wants to solve because they’re just thrown in there). Waning powers (it did take her forever to write this second novel) or was it a case of adapting the story to fit the current market?

    Oh wait I was being open minded…

  12. annebrooke
    March 25, 2010

    So glad it’s not just me, Jodie!! Thanks so much for commenting. I’ll be interested to see what you think if you last the course of the book …

    I wonder if McCann has been wrongly persuaded to write this kind of “bland literary nonsense” novel whereas her writing heart actually lies elsewhere. Perhaps we should have a campaign to allow authors to write what drives them, not what drives the market!

    Axxx

  13. Jodie
    March 25, 2010

    I would love to know if it’s a case of persuasion as well Anne, or possibly doubt in her writing let the demons about marketability and audience creep in… I’d also really like to know why the Orange judges put this on the prize list, it makes no sense (so far), especially against such a strong, alternative historical novel like ‘Wolf Hall’ and the very lit fic ‘The Still Point’. Thanks for your email as well – terrible to feel like you’re the only one not getting somethign isn’t it.

  14. annebrooke
    March 25, 2010

    Thanks, Jodie! Yes, I do wonder about the longlist – seems very bizarre. Am very much looking forward to getting my teeth into Wolf Hall though. I like a meaty novel (no pun intended).

    🙂

    Axxx

  15. Claire
    March 26, 2010

    Thank you so much for this review, I really did feel I was the only one and wondered what I could be missing, having read such raving reviews.
    I was stunned that this was a Faber novel, it reads like the sort of cosy/ dull historical novel you normally only find at church book sales. Nothing to challenge, excite or inspire the reader.
    The cider parts were easily the most interesting, and they were sadly few and far between. I thought the idea of a strapping young man roaming the county to press the cider of country families sounded rather promising; but how wrong I was ( and how tedious and unstrapping he was!) How little she does with this! But then the historical and geographical setting also seemed irresistible and these are also squandered. There is little atmosphere/historical detail or regional detail to lure us in and consequently it reads very slowly indeed.
    I didn’t even like the aunt, who had a rather panto villain quality; and yet also seemed unfairly maligned at times. One of Jonathan’s more interesting moments is when he actually looks around him and imagines what her life might be like.
    I’ll stop ranting now. But I’ll be very surprised if this makes it to the longlist.

  16. annebrooke
    March 26, 2010

    Thanks for the comments, Claire – and I so love your analogy to a church book sale offering. So true! I think you’re right too in that McCann could have done so much more with the cider/travelling man scenario.

    Like you, I don’t know what it’s doing on the longlist – will it make it to the shortlist, I wonder?!? If so, there’s no justice …

    Axxx

  17. Caroline
    March 31, 2010

    To echo Claire above – Thank you both for your negative opinions. I was also beginning to fear for my own sanity on reading the reams of glowing reviews which merrily toss around words such as ‘masterpiece’ and ‘erotic thriller’…. Both cause the mind to boggle – but the latter really did make me wonder if the reviewer (on back cover of the book itself!) had actually read the same book as me. Not only is THAT sex scene tawdry and inept (however – mercifully brief) but given the nature of the family secrets it seems to be verging on controversial to refer to it as ‘erotic’… One admits that the use of orchards, apples, cider-making, lush Somerset pastoral scenes etc etc could have added a sexual subtext. But it didn’t. As others have also pointed out there is virtually no sense of the setting, or of the time it is set in. Which is a real shame as this could have been an evocative and interesting aspect of the novel – it’s such a rich period to set a novel in.
    Going back to the term ‘erotic thriller’ – even the ‘thriller’ aspect of this phrase is entirely misleading in the generally accepted understanding of what a ‘thriller’ is. I concede you could stretch to saying there was a family mystery at the heart of the story. But frankly the biggest mysteries include:
    Why we are supposed to care about Jon and his family?
    Why Jon himself gets so involved in something right from the get-go which arguably – at that point – had absolutely nothing to do with him?
    Why the original letter from the dying uncle in itself was necessary (those of you who have read it will know what I mean when you consider how events later in the story resolve themselves from a legal point of view)?
    Why the incredibly long (and frankly difficult to believe) letter explaining various handy plot points mid-way through also inexplicably left out a rather large –and relevant to Jon – chunk of the sordid tale?
    Why it was that only the aunt ever attempted to murder Jon? – he was so incredibly smug, pompous, selfish, meddling, tedious and obstinate that if I could have reached my hands in to the book I would gleefully have shaken aunt Harriet’s hand as she left the cider vat and kept guard to ensure that annoying servant couldn’t save him. I lost count of the number of times he ‘congratulated’ himself on the sort of things most humans would take as basic intellectual behaviour (i.e. his ‘quick wittedness’ on deciding to pop into a pub to ask where a village in the vicinity is).
    Why it was that we were supposed to believe in his feelings for Tamar? (and why it was we were supposed to believe that men in the village would happily go and ‘visit’ Tamar and Joan in their stinking cave while the two of them were rank and malnourished?)
    Why this is on the Orange Prize longlist?

    I could honestly go on and on pointing out all the plot holes and irritations in this novel. But it would probably be rather unfair on those who haven’t read it as too much would be given away (although really – save yourselves!)

    The best thing that can be said about this is the pleasure I got from having such hatred of Jon and his actions – it made me incredulously compelled!

  18. annebrooke
    March 31, 2010

    Thanks so much for the comments, Caroline! And erotic thriller??!? Really?!? My mind also boggles!! And, like you, this really makes me worry seriously about the validity of the Orange Prize longlist … what’s the point if this is on it?

    !!!

    Axxx

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2010 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction: historical, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .

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