Review: Wolfwood - Marianna Baer
Genre: Young Adult contemporary, magical realism
Published: Amulet Books/Tantor Audio, March 2023
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“What does it mean that I think it’s completely messed up that some people have so much money, but that I’m also happy I was able to pass for part of the group.”
That’s a question Indigo Serra has asked herself many times over the years. The daughter of the once famous artist Zoe Serra, featured as the star of gallery-expositions for the ultra-rich, she has experienced the glamour of the art-world from the side-line ever since she was a child. Nowadays, Zoe and Indigo are barely scraping by, ever since Zoe’s mental breakdown forced her to quit painting for good. When a high-end collector offers Zoe a revival show for her unfinished blockbuster series, Wolfwood, Indigo knows it's a crucial chance to regain financial stability. Zoe, however, mysteriously refuses. Desperate not to lose the opportunity, Indigo secretly takes up the brush herself, and begins to forge her mother’s unfinished paintings herself. Submerging herself completely in the fiction world of the paintings, Indigo finds the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur when she paints. Soon she finds out there may have been a reason behind her mothers desperate refusal to ever take up the brush again, that goes back through the colourfully painted jungles of Wolfwood, all the way to her mothers past.
Despite its Goodreads-tag as “fantasy”, I feel like Wolfwood is more fittingly described as a Young Adult contemporary novel with some slight magical realism elements thrown in. I’m admittedly already a sucker for this genre, yet still, Wolfwood was a standout for me, and exceeded all expectations I had. At its core is a meaningful and relatable story about themes of family, art, privilege and class- and financial inequality, that could’ve easily stood on its own, but was only enhanced in colour by the magical realism of the artwork coming to life in Indigo’s mind. I personally loved the perspective of Indigo, a girl from a middle-class single-parent family, navigating her way through the elitist art-world and struggling with her feelings regarding it. Indigo admires and envies the beauty of such a slavish life-style, but also feels disgusted by the ultra-rich. She wants to simultaneously fit into them, but also stay true to her roots and ends up feeling like a (literal) imposter in both worlds. Dealing with this type of imposter syndrome myself (although in a very different context than art) I think Baer nailed that representation, in a way that I’ve only seen before in the likes of Tripping Arcadia. The magical realism element matches this theme perfectly: a girl displaced in an environment both filled with beauty and monsters, uncovering the history her mother had within it, and finding a place for herself.
Another great aspect of the novel is in the character-interactions. Most notably; the mother-daughter dynamic between Indigo and Zoe were great. No diagnosis is mentioned, but it’s clear from context that Zoe suffers from mental health problems that lead Indigo to take up the role of caretaker and “parent of the family” in many ways. Again, without spoiling anything: I thought this representation was spot on. Sensitive, without judgement, and respecting both the negative effects that come from such a dynamic, as well as the love of both parties for each-other. Another great dynamic is between Indigo and her love-interest. I liked their banter, but mostly appreciated them going slow; a rare sight within a YA-contemporary.
Overall, I highly recommend this novel if you’re looking for something that balances important contemporary conversations with a lush and vivid world painted in bright colours that almost literally leap of the pages. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in this case I’m glad I did, as its beauty completely matches the inside.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Tantor Audio for allowing my access to an audio-ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Find this book here on Goodreads.