Anyone who has had to study classic literature knows which websites to consult for a summary of whatever book they’ve been assigned. For The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first published novel, this approach does no favours to either the reader or the text, turning the story into a random series of events concerning upper-middle class Brits on holiday. Likewise, numerous essays and articles explain what the book is supposed to mean, and how I should think of it. A Bildungsroman. A criticism of Edwardian society and gender roles. A tribute, ironic or not, to Woolf’s friends, upon whom the main characters are apparently based. I could use any of these angles when describing The Voyage Out, but none would do it justice. You must experience Woolf’s fluid prose for yourself.
Is it worth the effort? For the most part, I believe it is. Yes, the characters’ old-fashioned behaviours seem awkward and yes, this narrative is not so deftly handled as those in Woolf’s later works, but the hints of budding modernism and feminism compensate for this. Juliet Stevenson’s superb reading of the audiobook made The Voyage Out all the more enjoyable for me.
After a devastating natural disaster, the city at the foot of the mountain struggles with food shortages, harsh winter, and the inexplicable encroachment of wild vines onto urban territory. Nothing the survivors plant is able to grow, however, and they begin to look with suspicion upon the usual scapegoats in a catastrophe: the leaders and the outcasts.
Newcomer Tasha steps into the leadership role as the only doctor in the community, organising food rations and scouting trips even as others chafe against her rule and accuse her of false promises. In the second role, the outcast, we have Heather, a new mother with cerebral palsy whose history with the mountain and its rumoured magic make her an object of fear and ridicule for some of her neighbours. But Heather is not the sum of their contempt – she is the keystone of the story, a survivor long before the apocalypse, and an unwilling mediator between the two worlds of the book: the desperate city and the ominous magical mountain.
Leduc alternates between the central plot and a series of original fairy tales which function as both backstory and counterpoint. Her fluid, unpretentious style lets the novelty of her genre-blending shine, but this is not always to the book’s advantage. Sometimes the magic makes sense, and sometimes it does not. In the first half of the book, a portal between worlds is mentioned twice, but never explained or (as far as I could tell) used.