If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are (still) hooked on the groundbreaking reality TV series “Survivor,” the intriguing debut novel from memoirist and long-distance dog-sledder Blair Braverman will feel familiar—at first. In Small Game, five strangers are dropped off in a forest, where they must live off the land and work together to claim the prize money, and it’s all filmed for a new show called “Civilization.”
Protagonist Mara is an employee at a survival school. She can identify edible plants and build a fire. After a childhood shaped by paranoia—her off-the-grid conspiracy theorist parents worried their phones were being tapped and believed her mother’s miscarriages were due to a government conspiracy to control the population—Mara finds the “Civilization” cameras almost soothing. “She didn’t have to consider the surreality of dark figures spying, or cameras in the trees,” Braverman writes. “There was nothing to research, to doubt or to believe. The cameras were real, and everyone knew it. The eyes were always there.”
The other contestants include Kyle, an eager 19-year-old Eagle Scout from Indiana and a bit of a know-it-all; Bullfrog, a quiet and weathered carpenter who spends his time building a shelter, seemingly to avoid the others; and Ashley, a “magazine-gorgeous” competitive swimmer who’s using this opportunity as a springboard to fame. The fifth competitor, James, drops out almost immediately, sensing that something is deeply awry.
Turns out, James’ prescience might have saved him. Within weeks, the “Civilization” production crew disappears, leaving the four remaining cast members stranded with few resources and virtually no information. They don’t know where they are, where the crew has gone and if they will return. After a grisly accident, the group sets out to find help.
As a harrowing account of smoky, itchy, bloody wilderness survival, Small Game is extremely enjoyable. On a deeper level, it’s also a deeply satisfying exploration of how humans persevere and adapt in the era of constant intrusion, whether from cameras or social media. And ultimately, it’s a hopeful read, because even in the face of almost certain disaster, Braverman’s characters still find moments of connection and joy.