Sunday 28 April 2024

Book Review: The Wild Silence, Raynor Winn

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The Wild Silence picks up where The Salt Path left off. Moth and Raynor are living in rented rooms in a chapel, Moth is studying, and Raynor continues to seek work while simultaneously becoming more and more socially anxious. Even within the safety of their home she struggles to sleep unless she is inside the tent. Transitioning back into a settled life proves more difficult than she had imagined, and with Moth at the University for the majority of the day she spends most of her time alone, worrying about how the sedentary lifestyle is affecting her husband’s health. She spends time trying to work out the science behind why his health improved during their months long walk along the South West Coast Path despite the fact doctors had advised him to take it easy. 

Decline and death are always on the periphery, and it is brought into sharper focus when Raynor’s mother is taken seriously ill. As she returns to the place she grew up and has to confront the imminent loss of a parent she begins to explore the past. Her parents never approved of Moth, this free-spirited young man who took her to the mountains at every opportunity. She looks back at their early relationship, the trips that didn’t go to plan, the difficult situations they’ve shared and survived, and the burgeoning love she felt for him, her reliance on him throughout, and her unwavering trust. She would follow him anywhere. And yet, in the difficult last days of her mother’s life she refuses to let him be there for her, she cannot bear to have him see death, to see his future laid bare. Perhaps even more so, she can’t allow the reality of that future to touch her, she has to keep them separate. Her honesty about the sometimes strained relationship with her parents is refreshing, letting us in on the realities of contemplating a lifetime connection at the very end. These passages are entirely heartbreaking - for those who have lost a parent it will likely feel all too familiar and for those dreading the day this loss comes for them, the stark honesty will make you want to hold your loved ones close.

As Moth’s health deteriorates so does his memory. Raynor is shocked to discover that he is losing memory of parts of their walk, a shared experience that feels so important to her that he remember. As a response, she writes a memoir about the walk as a gift to him. This eventually becomes The Salt Path, and in this, its sequel, we are privy to the disorienting process that led to its publication. For someone increasingly struggling to be around other people, and wanting to hide their former homelessness from the local community, their story becoming public and the demand for her to take part in publicity events is a challenge. However, the book proves a great opportunity for them, leading to contacts that have the potential to change their life. One such contact leads to them taking on a farm in an attempt to regenerate it. It is a huge job, and it seems wrong that they are expected to pay rent for a home that is uninhabitable while they sink their own money and a huge amount of time into not just the land but the home. Despite the challenges and the physical toll it takes, seeing the land begin to come to life, the local wildlife return, brings a sense of peace.

Constantly torn between desperately wanting to keep Moth moving, and fear that her insistence that he doesn’t rest is making him worse, by the end of the book they are on a challenging hike in the hostile wilderness of Iceland, on the cusp of winter setting in. Along the way they are surprised by how other hikers behave around them. They all seem to be in their twenties and don’t want to mix with the group of older walkers, but there is an underlying strangeness to the way they interact with them. It’s only later that Raynor realises how they already know their story.

A slightly meandering narrative that covers a lot of ground. This is a lot less of a hiking memoir than The Salt Path, more of a personal exploration of a marriage and the relationships that hold our lives together. The passages about having her first book published feel somewhat meta, but it is an honest portrayal of the joys and challenges that come with success. Winn never shies away from the difficult moments in life and lays bare intimate details of some of the most challenging experiences. An emotional read, and one that briefly re-caps her story to date so you could pick it up even if you haven’t read the first book, although it is definitely worth reading both. 

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