Joan Thomas provokes questions of water and wealth in new novel
The Manitoba-based writer talks about her novel Wild Hope on The Next Chapter with Ryan B. Patrick
In her latest novel Wild Hope, Joan Thomas uses the Ontario-based characters of Jake and Isla to explore the nature of love amidst very different philosophical stances on wealth and privilege. As the story unfolds, the novel explores the couple's complex feelings about the state of their relationship and the state of the planet.
Thomas is the author of four previous novels. Her first novel, Reading by Lightning, won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean) and the Amazon First Novel Award. Her novel Five Wives won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
Her novel The Opening Sky was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2014.
Wild Hope follows Isla and Jake, a couple who are slowly drifting apart. Isla's farm-to-table restaurant is failing and visual artist Jake is haunted by his late father's legacy in the oil and gas industry. Jake's childhood friend-turned-enemy Reg Bevaqua is a local bottled-water baron and harbours a seething resentment toward Jake.
Reg is a demanding regular at Isla's restaurant and Jake is keeping a close eye on him. When Jake disappears after a winter camping trip all signs point to Reg and his magnificent Georgian Bay property — and Isla is determined to get to the bottom of it.
Thomas spoke with The Next Chapter's Ryan B. Patrick about Wild Hope.
Some of the characters in the novel, Wild Hope push back against the systems of wealth, privilege and entitlement and some reach for it. What got you thinking about systems of class and wealth as they play out in the lives of these characters?
Well, I think we're seeing a grotesque version of capitalism in the world today. I would say that the issue of climate change has really asked us to contemplate inequality in a way that we didn't before. One of the catalysts for me was a book that I read several years ago, Nathaniel Rich's Losing Earth, which is a history of climate science in the U.S. It really puts its finger on the fact that everything we're experiencing now was known 50 years ago and that the Reagan government decided not to act on it and instead say, "We'll leave the future problems to future generations."
I guess what got me about it was that a small cadre of individuals could make decisions that would affect the whole planet in such a catastrophic way- Joan Thomas
I was appalled reading that book to know that the oil and gas industry was prepared to pivot to renewables and instead put that money into disinformation. I guess what got me about it was that a small cadre of individuals could make decisions that would affect the whole planet in such a catastrophic way.
So I'm looking at these individuals in this book and the disproportionate amount of power that they hold.
Jake's pretty tormented by the wealth and privilege that he grew up in. He's the son of a Cabinet minister who's an oil and gas booster and this legacy weighs so heavily on Jake. How does he see his father?
I see Jake is having a lot of external privilege but lacking the ease in the world that comes with having been seen and respected. His father saw him as an avatar for his father's own ambitions and Jake continually fell short of that. Jake's feelings for his father are very intense but a lot of it is rage and fury at his father's values and the way he sees them spreading through society.
Isla grew up in a bohemian household. She was homeschooled and pretty much free to follow her passions. How does the shape or inform her psyche?
I loved writing Isla because I think I've often written characters who are a little bit more like Jake. I wanted to stick my fingers into the cracks in their neuroses and analyze them. I really like the psychological novel, but I wanted to create a character who had the capacity to go back to first principles, take the world on freshly and change as the world changes. In Isla, I saw that person.
She feels good about herself, she's not plagued by self doubt and Jake says that if she sees something as good, she does it. It was important to me to write a character like that because we do have a lot of wild hopes for the people that will maybe take us forward into a very problematic future, and I saw Isla as being one of them.
It was important to me to write a character like that because we do have a lot of wild hopes for the people that will maybe take us forward into a very problematic future.- Joan Thomas
The third person in this triangle is Jake's childhood friend Reg Bevaqua. I say his last name Bevaqua because it turns into his brand Bevaqua Blue, which is the bottled water that he's turned into this multi-million company. How do Jake and Isla see this product that Reg sells which turns him into a very wealthy person?
In their mind it's quite emblematic of capitalism today, the commodification of everything — including the commodification of water. I think Isla is absolutely perplexed as to how such a flawed, empty individual as Reg could have the kinds of privileges that he has in society. Jake feels almost complicit in their creation of Reg because they had such a competitive relationship as boys and Reg was like a charity project for Jake's parents.
Jake despises capitalism and he's worked very hard to distance himself from his family. However, he's still thinking that he came up steeped in that kind of culture so how can he see the world in any different way? What do you think about that? Do you agree with Jake in terms of how he sees the world, on his standing versus how he thinks things should be?
I do. In Jake I'm asking the question, "Can we change?"
It's a question I'm asking constantly in my life: can we evolve fast enough? I think that Jake does change in many ways. He wants to use his art to change the conversation. He's very idealistic, but he sort of gets swept up into some old patterns and the book becomes a mystery in its last third with all of those familiar tropes and and, you know, clues and motives and suspects and so on.
I didn't foresee that happening, but it kind of delighted me when it did because I think Jake is pulled back into old stories and that's the thing that we're trying to do as societies in the global North – to question old stories and try and step out of them.
That's the thing that we're trying to do as societies in the global North – to question old stories and try and step out of them.- Joan Thomas
Do you see room for hope?
The word is very loaded among environmentalists, among people who are active in the fight against climate change because it sounds a little bit passive.
At one point I had this conversation with my agent and I said, "I've come to prefer the word resolve." And she said, "I'm not sure that 'Wild Resolve' has quite the same ring to it." But I like the phrase wild hope because it operates on a few levels too as Jake tries to reconnect with the natural world and ground his work more closely in nature.
I think worldwide, the word "wild" resonates with that too.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.