Wild Abandon, by Joe Dunthorne, operates on the very simple premise that the world will come to an end. Not in the “we’re going to fall into the sun in 4.5 billion years” kind of way. In a couple of months kind of way. At least, in the mind of a slightly brainwashed 11 year old.
When the end comes, it will start “with a big noise like a bus noise and then ten buses’ noise, then twelve, then there will be birds and if they write your name in the sky you can get on the buses and if they don’t you have to die on the floor,” or so Albert’s heard. In the end, he’s hoping he and his sister might be the last two people alive – and maybe their parents, too.
It’s a funny kind of book, one that introduces us to its main characters, siblings, as they race to the shower after milking the goats. Albert is 11 and Kate is 17. She’s starting to realize that this is not normal, but without the race to the shared shower Albert would never get clean. They’ve grown up, after all, living a fairly “alternative lifestyle” at Blaen-e-llyn, a once thriving community (not a commune), in Wales. It’s seen better days – the community recently accepted an unnerving woman who subscribes to the black-hole-apocalypse Mayan theory because she had a 6-year-old son. They’re pretty desperate for younger members.
This is a book about a community, and maybe about the end of the world. But it is also a book about exploring the complex relationships of family, without which the book would be amusing, but not nearly so engaging.
Albert’s ardent belief in the end of the world is strange, but his life is falling apart around him. His mom, Freya, has realized she doesn’t actually like her husband anymore. His sister and best friend, Kate, has abandoned him at the community to live with her meathead boyfriend. His Dad, Don, is giving him lectures on the joys of growing up, complete with a story about running away to go rock climbing and getting to second base with an older girl. It’s no wonder that the end of the world theory, complete with “non-stop carnage” and free reign to explore old libraries and castles, is so appealing.
Dunthorne has a gift for describing characters and their relationships in small, deft strokes. Freya listens to Don rationalizing solving the brainwashed Albert issue by pulling out his Soviet-inspired learning tool, and realizes again how it is “frightening to glimpse the gap between Don as he viewed himself, and the reality”. Don’s the kind of man who grills aspiring community members because he himself was interviewed and rejected from Oxford. He’s an expert at telling other people what’s best for them, as everyone at the community could attest.
In a desperate attempt to put the community back on the map, while simultaneously saving his family, Don plans a major blow-out party with a full-on sound system in the live music yurt, fresh goat, and video coverage by an aspiring filmmaker. Will it save the commune and keep the family from falling apart? Will the end of the world come to Wales?
Dunthorne, a native of Wales, proved himself a good writer with Submarine, a bestselling novel with a major motion picture adaptation. Wild Abandon proves that he’s still got it, in spades.