In Other Words In Wilderness by Diane Thomas
Pinpointing the moment when chronic pain and illness sets in isn’t easy. Is it a slow build of symptoms until one day you realize you can’t remember the last time you felt well, or can you identify a before and after? Nausea, lethargy, muscle and joint pain, migraines, dizziness, confusion — these are just a few of the daily sensations experienced by those suffering from a wide range of illnesses that are often identified by catch-all diagnoses like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). If you have one or more of these conditions, you know the names don’t encompass all of what your body faces. It’s as if your insides are always on high alert to react irrationally to some invading army of germs or chemicals that aren’t dangerous to other people. Or, conversely, it seems that your cells and tissues react to the world too slowly and can’t get rid of what other people easily process. The business of daily life makes you sick, and that reality brings its own set of problems. Do you put on a brave face and shoulder on in your career, for instance, even though you are in constant physical misery? Or do you — can you? — opt out and try to find a better way of coping?
In 1966, the year In Wilderness begins, these kinds of syndromes and diseases had no names. Katherine Reid, who loses her baby and is then beset by symptoms of what is now referred to as multiple chemical sensitivity, can’t keep food down. Her doctor tells her she has mere months to live before her organs give up. Suddenly having to deal with her mortality, on a whim the financially comfortable divorcee sells her home and her interest in her ex-husband’s advertising agency and moves to a cabin in the mountain forests of Georgia to live out her last days in solitude. Also in residence in the woods is Danny, a twenty-year-old Vietnam veteran with a strict moral code who is coming apart psychologically. Now he would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition, caused by prolonged fear, in which the nervous system’s fight-or-flight mechanism is fundamentally recalibrated to overreact.
Danny knows Katherine has moved to the woods, but she doesn’t know of his existence. Though she is old enough to be his mother, Danny falls in love from afar and begins stalking her — another concept that was poorly understood at the time the novel takes place. Author Diane Thomas asks us to consider the differences between curiosity and obsession, lust and anger, and protection and possession. It is easy, even in our best moments, to confuse sexual and emotional intimacy. Once they are in the same room together, the two attractive mountaindwelling recluses barely stand a chance of forgoing involvement. Unfortunately, Katherine has no idea how dangerous Danny’s mind is. He cannot tell the difference between benign strangers and mortal enemies, and the vocabulary with which he thinks about women would ordinarily repel someone like her. But the damaged silent type can be irresistible: a real-live man on which to project a fantasy.
Thomas writes with great attention to natural details and with a deep understanding of the problems with which she’s saddled her characters. The prose is both lush and muscular, steeped unabashedly in the language of passion, bordering sometimes on bodice-rippers, though the foundations of the book are absolutely literary. Thomas doesn’t offer isolation in the wilderness as the ultimate solution for everyone with environmental illness, but she does present it as a tantalizing option. What if we could just lessen our exposure, lessen the pressure, give our bodies time to find their natural rhythms without the constant assortment of chemicals, sights, smells, sounds, and stresses that most people who have to hold down jobs are bombarded by? It’s not so different from the days when people were sent to recover from tuberculosis in the clean air of New Mexico — but rest cures have fallen out of fashion in favor of work, and illnesses that can’t be cured by knives or pills are often considered character flaws rather than legitimate medical problems. Isolating oneself from the prying eyes of capitalism in order to regain health has become the stuff of fantasy, a love story for the sick body. — Jennifer Levin
Bantam Books / Random House, 304 pages