Book Review: Small Game by Blair Braverman

This novel is fairly short, fast-paced, and very entertaining. It concerns a woman named Mara who teaches survival skills at a facility called Primal Instinct. She is approached by a casting team of a new reality show, Civilization. Together with four other contestants, she is flown deep into the northern woods. Clad in lightweight uniforms, they are each given one tool, no food, and told they have to somehow live off the land for six weeks. If they manage it, they each win one hundred thousand dollars, which Mara sees as sufficient funds to escape from an unfulfilling relationship. One of the five leaves almost immediately, but the others stick it out. At first their only food consists of a few wild plants that Mara finds, while they lose weight and strength, and then they manage to catch a few fish. Then, inexplicably, the producer and photographers leave and don’t return, and Mara and her three teammates have to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.

Small Game is unpretentious from a literary standpoint; the prose is straightforward and without refinements, but the lean style suits the story. The characters too are pared down to essentials; they have to learn to get along and work together to be able to cope with the hostile, or rather indifferent, environment into which the show’s producer has cast them. Since the crew abruptly vanishes without warning, they are left to speculate about what might have happened and whether they should stay where they are or attempt to hike out.

Braverman is uniquely qualified to pen this tale; she is writing about what she knows. She is a dogsled racer and adventurer who has written extensively about survival in harsh environments. As a result, the novel has a strong sense of verisimilitude. It is easy to become immersed in the landscape and the struggle for survival in which the characters find themselves. It reminded me of the escapist stories of Jack London, to whom Braverman has been compared by Publisher’s Weekly. (The specific term the periodical used was “a 21st-century feminist reincarnation of Jack London.)

London attributed the popularity of his tales to “death appeal.” In other words, readers craved the sensation of facing death in harsh situations without really being in harm’s way. That’s one of the strengths of this novel: the “what if?” factor. What if this happened to you? What if you were invited to participate in a television show with supposed security and safety protocols, but then all the safety nets disappeared and you were really fighting for your life?

As I read this novel, I kept thinking what an anomaly it is. There are a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and fantasies on the market, but very few books that offer adventurous, realistic escapism of this type. It’s a lot of fun to take off for the north woods with these characters and empathize with their efforts to build a shelter, find food, get along, and ultimately fight to stay alive when their TV pseudo survival struggles turn into real ones.

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