We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Rating: 3 out of 5.

They went off the grid. Their secrets didn’t. For readers of The Secret History and The Immortalists comes a novel about the allure–and dangers–of disconnecting.

Today is the anniversary. I will be hauntingly aware of it, an old delicious burden, all day, nursing it along, sipping from it as if from a hidden flask. It seems unreal, though, here in the sunlight.

Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

The characters are the usual band of friends: the strident one, the thoughtful one, the sensitive one, the radical one, and the one running away from something. We know from the beginning that it all goes south so the novel chronicles its eventual demise as well as the alliances, hidden agendas, sexual activities and secrets among the members of The Homestead.

The Homestead was one hundred acres of mossy woodlands and neglected fields, five small cabins and one large one, a few sheds and semi-roofed structures in varying stages of dilapidation. 

Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative.

We were abuzz. We smoked a serious spliff. When the food was eaten and the dishes cleared away to a bucket near the stove (there was no running water) and the joint was all gone, we grew antsy and stripped naked, donning just our boots and our coats and dashing to the sauna. Self-conscious about my poky hips and narrow shanks, I kept my undies on, while everyone else cavorted nude. I marveled at their bodies: Louisa, pallor and blaze; Chloe, graceful lines and impossible symmetry; Beau, curved muscles and springy elegance; Jack, burnished down, long, strong legs, and a surprisingly large cock. I was thoroughly seduced—by their bodies, by the still forest surrounding us, by the homely hearth around which we sat roasting.

Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. This reminded me a little of the lovely novel about a bunch of women starting a commune. Edit: Why Do We Have to Live with Men? Bernadette Strachan

“What do you think? Of our collective endeavor?” he asked.

I paused, though I’d already been formulating what to say, if asked. “I think we all have our own motivations. And they don’t need to perfectly align. So much of what goes wrong in other communal-living scenarios is an attempt to force everyone to feel the same way, to, I don’t know, worship the same thing. Maybe Jack cares most about the environment, and Louisa cares most about anti-capitalism. And, Beau, you share those opinions, but what you want is the good life. None of that conflicts, so why should you try for absolute agreement? We can all have what we want.”

As these millenials tackle issues like crop rotation, issues among themselves and personality clashes appear. But there are a few quite funny happenings. For example, the zucchinis (courgettes) experiences in August. That’s what happens if you plant too much of one thing and have a bounty of greens available.

August brought with it bounty, even excess. We found ourselves wading through cucumbers, eggplants, basil, parsley, sweet corn, peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes, and mountains of zucchini. We ate zucchini twice a day, since it was difficult to preserve: raw zucchini salads, noodles made from zucchini, grilled zucchini, zucchini curries, zucchini on flatbread, zucchini fritters. After a while, I looked at every squash I picked with loathing and despair, heavy with the knowledge that I would later have to consume it. 

And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous. Argos, their dog, dies (poisoned). They get a flu that knocks them out. Slowly the rural perfection tinted glasses start to slip off and she begins to question her surrounding. I couldn’t believe she didn’t do some basic research into who she was shacking up with. There used to be another commune before – with more members. All of legal age, a lot of creepy “dead-eyes” vegans and Allison, a newcomer who was 17 at her time of arrival. Matthew was the leader and soon accused by the girl’s parents of statutory rape. To make things worse, the young one committed suicide a year after. This is only the beginning as there are more stories coming to surface, even older communes, dispute between land-owners and a few political machinations.

I felt the ending was a bit duff, with the main hero going off to Africa to really help the actual hungry people and not fiddle around with pools and pest-free produce at home. The others are either raging, locked in a prison or down with the police.

Caite Dolan-Leach spins a poignant and deeply human tale with sharp insights into our modern anxieties, our collective failures, and the timeless desire to withdraw from the world.

%d bloggers like this: