I’ve usually got so much to read that I don’t really bother with NetGalley in an effort to get my hands on ARCs. Better that they go to people who do have time to read them, and may also actually review them. But I’ve been following Blair Braverman, writer and dogsledder, on Twitter for years now and have read both her memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, and her Tough Love column for Outside magazine; obviously I have also loved her many Twitter threads about her dogs. So when I found out she had a novel coming out in November 2022, I was intrigued, and when I found out ARCs were on NetGalley, I went for it.
Mara, and four other people, have signed up for a reality television show called Civilization, in which they are dropped into a remote wilderness area with a single tool of their choosing. If they can make it for six weeks, they’ll get a $100,000 prize. Mara, who was raised largely off the grid by survivalist parents who grew increasingly paranoid as she got older, figures it’ll be easy for her, and it’ll get her out of her dead-end relationship and help her start her life over again. But then, of course, things go wrong, because of course they do, and survival stops looking like such a sure bet.
Small Game is briskly-paced and well-realized; both Braverman and her husband Quince Mountain were on the reality show Naked and Afraid, so the reality television details are extremely well-observed and help make the first half of the book so immersive. Not only that, but Braverman uses the inherent performativity of reality television to her advantage; Mara is not sure, at times, what reactions from her fellow contestants are real, and which ones are them acting or exaggerating their responses for the camera. It keeps her off-balance and unsteady, and as someone who already struggles to trust others, Mara has perhaps underestimated how much the TV component will make it even harder for her to bond with anyone else.
As mentioned, things go wrong, and I don’t want to spoil the how and why; suffice it to say that it gets harrowing, and I don’t want to go backpack camping anytime soon. But the harrowing material comes from the hardship of life in the wild, and not from Mara’s fellow contestants. While they struggle to get along and work together, this isn’t because any of them are bad people: they’re flawed, but not vicious, and they’re all desperately yearning for some kind of change in the real lives that they’re escaping. I was grateful for this, because hunger and horrible injuries are bad enough; interpersonal or sexual violence would’ve been too much.
Braverman also effectively raises real questions about ethics and morality in these survival situations, one without simple or easy answers: this is a situation where good intentions don’t keep people from getting injured, nor does it put food in their bellies. And the way in which Mara and her fellow survivors navigate these situations are poignant, flawed, and messy. (And while good intentions can’t save you, they’re sure a lot better than bad intentions.) If I wished for anything, it was just a little more emotional depth from Mara and in her connections to the other main characters: I still felt held somewhat at a distance all the way through, and the situation was compelling enough that I wanted to feel nearer and more engaged. But it’s a promising debut, and I totally recommend it when it comes out in November, especially if you were the kind of kid who loved stories like The Far Side of the Mountain or Hatchet when you were younger: this is definitely a novel for grown-up you.