The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff review – a survival story

She is buried deep inside the source code of human storytelling: the lone girl in the woods. Lustful gods chase her. Huntsmen stalk her. Sly wolves nip at her heels. She rushes into the arms of forbidden lovers, and away from unworthy suitors. She runs through First Nations’ creation fables and Greek myths and Grimms’ fairytales. She runs across our screens as slasher bait. And the lesson this fleet-footed girl teaches us, again and again, is that fate can never be outpaced – especially the lurking inevitabilities of womanhood.

Lauren Groff’s new novel, The Vaster Wilds, begins in a winter forest. A servant girl has escaped from a plague-blighted settlement in the New World. Her hands are bloody, her heart is righteous and her head is full of scripture. She knows that she will be followed (“At least one bad man would be sent after her, for what she had done could not be permitted to stand”). And so she runs. And we run alongside her, out into “the great and terrible wilderness”.

And this is where we will stay. Groff details every “bellowing exigency” of her heroine’s body; every foraged mouthful and sputtering fire; every weeping sore and hot-bowelled shit. It’s the Book of Job meets Bear Grylls – a 17th-century episode of TV survival show Alone. From mending a canoe with melted tree sap, to roasting squirrel kebabs, Groff’s fugitive has a preternatural – some would say ludicrous – aptitude for survival. I’ve heard the novel described as “Cormac McCarthy for girls”, presumably referring to the fact that it has an actual girl in it, as opposed to some manic pixie dream nihilist. It’s a provocation, but also an apt comparison. Like McCarthy’s arid-hearted westerns, The Vaster Wilds is a novel of sin and deliverance, monstrosity and awe, and the dark rapacity of the American soul.

Groff shows us America in embryo: a colony of second sons (“men ill-starred in birth”), whose fortune-gluttony will prove even more virulent and deadly than their plagues and poxes. In a world so intent on dominion – on claiming and naming – oblivion feels like its own kind of liberty: “Into the night the girl ran and ran, and the cold and the dark and the wilderness and her fear and the depth of her losses, all things together, dwindled the self she had once known down to nothing. A nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past. It was also true that with no past, the girl thought, a nothing could be free.”

It is America’s greatest promise and its greatest lie: that the past can be erased. The further the girl travels from the settlement, the more that lie unravels. Plucked from a poorhouse orphanage and raised into servitude, she has spent her young life as a wealthy English family’s plaything, treated with the same indignity as their pet monkey, even called by its name. When the girl runs, she believes she has escaped all of that blithe cruelty. But when she looks at the landscape, she only knows how to see what her masters have seen: “a sheet of parchment yet to be written upon”. In the girl’s body, a fever simmers. What other legacies might she be carrying?

There is a rumour that The Vaster Wilds is the first in a planned trilogy about the end of empire. But in invoking that elemental story – the girl, the forest – Groff’s novel also invites allegorical wandering. There’s an Anthropocene parable of stewardship here; a pandemic-era fable of contagion; and a tale of ordinary female terror. The monsters the girl fears in the shadows aren’t raw-toothed creatures, but men: “even a good man was more deadly than the worst of bears”.

The Vaster Wilds could be seen as a mighty repudiation of faith – a God-killing fever dream – but also as a divine exaltation. The rhythm of Groff’s prose is certainly biblical, incantatory. And her fugitive girl – so pious and penitent – speaks in the cadences of a lay preacher (“My heart is wounded within me; I am gone like the shadow when it declineth; I am tossed up and down like the locust”). This is the second time Groff has tangled with the Lord. Her last book, Matrix, was a gloriously heretical tale of a medieval convent: all romp, revel and rapture. The Vaster Wilds is made of sterner stuff.

It’s a hymn of endurance, and it takes some enduring. There is something exhilarating about this novel, a velocity of ambition. But the Florida-based author has previously insulated her work with a protective layer of humour: that was part of the delectable lure of Fates and Furies. Now the insulation is gone; in its place is a new austerity, a whittled seriousness. The Vaster Wilds is a lean and hungry book, bare as a gnawed bone, resolute. Groff is not lost in the forest. She knows exactly where she is going.

• The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.