It is human nature to be fascinated by the abnormal, and there is nothing more out of the ordinary than a child raised by animals. Such is the subject matter of Savage Girl, the new novel by Jean Zimmerman. Set during the Gilded Age in Manhattan, Savage Girl is the story of Bronwyn—who is purported to be raised in the wild and her lasting effect on the Delegate family.
The book’s narrator is Hugo Delegate, the eldest son of the Delegate family. His upbringing in his eccentric and wealthy family has entitled him to all travel, education, and culture. However, his fascination with the morbid and technical aspects of the human body set him apart from his peers. When his family attends a sideshow act, Hugo meets Bronwyn. She is put forth as a “savage girl”, raised in the wild and equipped with her own set of claw-like knives. Hugo’s parents, no strangers to a menagerie of unusual people, acquire Bronwyn, with the intent to show that they can cultivate her character and make her fit for society—thus proving that “nurture” is more important than “nature”.
Bronwyn proves to be more cunning and clever than they anticipated. She dresses like a man, sneaks out of the house, and develops her own set of questionable friends. And when the bodies of people that Bronwyn has been seen with start to pile up, there is a question of whether or not her “reform” has been complete.
Told in flashback form by Hugo Delegate, who has himself been jailed for murder, Savage Girl is an atmospheric and rich novel. The language is glorious and the characters are well drawn and complex. The structure of the novel is unusual, in that the narrative arc was not strictly linear—you have to pay attention to detail here. This is not a book for a quick casual read.
Having said that, I must admit that, though I enjoyed the setting and the writing, I found myself disliking every character in Savage Girl. Each had mixed motives, unclear morals, or was otherwise unappealing. Perhaps this was by design, so I cannot fault the author for it. But, it led to a bit of tedium for me. I often felt bogged down by the narrative.
This is not a feel good novel, or one that moves quickly. It is more like a creepy, slow simmering tale. In some cases, it moved at a snail’s pace, it seemed. The ending, while implausible, made perfect sense for the characters in this book.
Fans of literary fiction will enjoy Savage Girl, but make no mistake. This is not a page-turner, but rather a literary examination of some deep philosophical questions. If that is what you are looking for, you are in for a treat with Savage Girl.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina