Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Brigid Delaney
Paperback, 268pages, May 2014, ISBN: 9780732296872
I’ve been reading a lot about bullying lately. It seems to be a hot topic in the media, in a number of recently released memoirs, and in fiction. In nearly every instance the bullying is underpinned by deeply ingrained assumptions about “normality” charged with intense fear and the need to reinforce power structures in both children and adults. The bullying I’ve been reading about has been a lot more serious than name-calling. In most cases it has led to PTSD and at its worst, death from injuries or even suicide. Brigid Delaney’s Wild Things is not a memoir – it’s fiction. The events in this book didn’t happen specifically, but the verisimilitude is so strong that they feel not only probable, but very real. Delaney, who used much of her research into college hazing or initiations in writing Wild Things, approaches her theme subtly, building the narrative through multiple viewpoints so that the reader becomes an uncomfortable participant on all sides, as victim, as bully, and as investigator. As in most cases, the lines between these roles shift.
The story is set in St Anton’s university college, an elite university where the endemic bullying dismissed as harmless “initiation rituals” equates to serious misogyny, substance abuse, and deep seated racism. The depravity behind closed doors is in stark contrast to the beautiful facade of the school – it’s high sandstone walls, its sporting achievements, and the gloss of privilege that (some) attendees appear to enjoy. After winning the season final, the highly lauded school cricket team decide to take a trip to Evelyn, a college owned camp in the mountains. It’s there that the besuited and creepy ringleader Hadrien brings out his subversive gift – a first year Engineering student from Malaysia named Alfred. When things go overboard with their initiations, Alfred is badly hurt, and the college closes rank. Delaney explores the aftermath from multiple points of view, moving progressively deeper into the underlying power structures and inherent sadism, not only of this college, but of society as a whole, and there are some pretty potent parallels to be found.
St Anton’s is so richly depicted it’s almost a character in itself – an antagonist that bears an obvious resemblance to Sydney University’s St John’s College (where Delaney was once a tutor), right down to the sandstone buildings, the manicured green lawn of the quadrangle, the excesses which caused St John’s some media scrutiny in 2012, and the hazing scandals: “a ”lotus-eating dreamworld”, where the ”household gods are beer, chicks and footy” (http://www.smh.com.au/national/colleges-show-flaws-in-the-sandstone-20121109-2939j.html#ixzz41e181zK0). Delaney’s writing is powerfully descriptive, and often poetically beautiful, capturing not only the deadly corruption of groupthink and self-hatred that comes with continual bullying, but also the more seductive camaraderie as it comes through shared physical exercise, shared experiences, and the natural beauty that surrounds the boys:
Then it happened. You found your rhythm and the water yielded to the boat. And although the boys were bent over, they remembered to look up and it was dark and still, but somewhere there was a little rip in the sky where the light got in and the birds knew this and they surged and sang as the sky ripped a little bit further open, until suddenly there were holes everywhere for the light to get in, until the night was torn to shreds and the sky was streaked with pink, blue and gold. (53)
Though the boys involved are really men – 18, 19, 20 and older, there’s a strong sense in Wild Things that the bullying that takes place at St Antons is partly structural – driven by the tacit encouragement of the older characters – the college Master, and the pathetic tutor Dr Bath, who takes strong sleeping pills when he should be supervising the boys (he isn’t averse to practising a bit of bestiality either). Certainly the Master and teaching staff fail in their duty of care, as do many of the boy’s parents, who are more than willing to look the other way, but in the Master’s deliberate ignoring of the boys attempts to confess, and in the subtle way he excuses and even encourages bad behaviour, perversion, secrecy and elitism, he perpetuates it:
He knew the students could be animals but he liked the term ‘wilful blindness’. He could turn away when they went feral. He chose not to know and thus remained unaccountable. What he wanted to see were his scholar princes and trust-fund princesses. Privileged, good-looking, intelligent, articulate, athletic and well-mannered. (227)
Many of the boys who participate in the gristly weekend away have been institutionalized in boarding schools for a long time, and have endured their own extensive bullying. The toxic culture is not only bad for everyone at the school – trapping both bully and victim into a cycle that is exhausting and sickening on both sides, but also clearly forms these characters in ways that will spill over to their careers and adult interactions (including, one can extrapolate, governmental positions):
Toby could suddenly see Leeson a few years from now: his scar shining an silver, completely bald, his big hulking head fully exposed, his dark eyes glinting, almost reclining on a coach, as he was now, in front of a nasty CEO in a large office, helping to plan a merger that would swallow up a smaller, more vulnerable company, or sending swarms of hooded cab labour into a union-only site, or closing down textile mills, independent bookstores, buying up farmland for ‘light-industrial commercial-redevelopment purposes’. (175-6)
Though it is an intense and sometimes brutal read, Wild Things reveals its truths slowly, showing rather than telling, in the spaces between the story. The mystery of what exactly happened to Alfred is what drives the narrative forward, almost with a detective story pace,but in terms of its themes and the development of the characters, the story cuts deeply. The multi-layered narrative structure with its reversing arcs between Ben and Toby is particularly effective. The shift between protagonist and antagonist with these two best friends is complex, and their characters continue to develop in opposite directions as both try to come to terms with what the cricket team did on that terrible night.
There are some obvious, and fairly unpleasant villains: the brutally racist and misogynist Hadrian and the neglectful and self-serving Master are somewhat one-dimensional and disturbing in the pureness of their evil. It’s easy to see them as the catalysts, though their story is far less interesting than the deepening malaise of Toby and Ben. The growing schism between Toby and Ben are mirrored in the relationship between Charlotte and Lucy, both of whom also take opposing narrative arcs, and show the wide-reaching and long running nature of the corruption at St. Anton’s. Though it may be fiction, Wild Things tells a story that is all too likely, moving well beyond the confines of its sandstone towers to show how cruelty and privilege grow and become corrupting. Delaney’s exquisite prose, her obviously thorough research, and her attention to detail make this a chilling tale that will change the way readers perceive the world of exclusive schools, and indeed the whole nature of power in our modern society.