Small Game, by Blair Braverman

If you know Blair Braverman’s name at all, you may know her as the owner, trainer, musher, and social media representative of an exceptionally beautiful team of sled dogs (Blair and her dogs are among the few genuinely good things that Twitter has brought to our world; just something to think about as the whole thing goes into a slow-motion crash — Twitter, that is, not the dog team). She’s also an accomplished non-fiction writer, but Small Game is her first foray into fiction.

In it, Braverman draws upon her own experience both of wilderness survival, and of being a contestant on a survival-style reality show. The main character, Mara, signs up to be a contestant on a show called Civilization because she’s had loads of experience with wilderness living, her life is at a bit of a stuck place, and the $100,000 cash prize the show offers would be a big help in getting unstuck. She’s taken to a remote spot in the deep woods of the northern US (or possibly Canada; we never find out for sure where the location is) along with five other people and, of course, a camera and production crew. The contestants have to survive for six weeks; everyone who makes it to the end will be a winner.

Of course, something goes wrong.

I found this book to be as taut and tense and un-put-downable as a really good thriller. In some ways it reminded me of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Retreat, in that it felt like a more thoughtful and literary take on the idea of an individual, or a small group of people, trying to survive against the odds in a deadly situation. In this case, the question the story turns on is simple: what if something went wrong, and a survival reality show became … just reality? Just survival?

Going right back to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I was cursed to have to teach many, many, many years in a row, stories of this type are usually vehicles for writers to explore, not just tales of survival, but theories about human beings and how they interact. Lord of the Flies had shock value in its time because it posited that without the veneer of civilization’s structures, the raw selfishness and desire for dominance at the heart of all human beings would tear apart even a group of children — supposedly the best and most innocent of humans. Stories of this type often end up with a pretty bleak view of human nature, suggesting that when the pressure is on, people will always turn on each other.

These questions were clearly also on Blair Braverman’s mind, and will be on the reader’s mind once Mara and the other reality-show contestants find that their survival is no longer a game. I found the conclusion she reached in this story very satisfying, and the road she took to get there almost impossible to put down. A very compelling debut novel.

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