Jean Zimmerman. SAVAGE GIRL.
The premise of Jean Zimmerman's Savage Girl is gripping: What would happen if a wealthy couple with everything they could possibly imagine came across a so-called "feral child" in a tawdry Nevada sideshow and decides to bring her back to New York and convert her into a society belle? With shades of Pygmalion crossed with the darker hue of Edith Wharton, Savage Girl posits this theory and adds another layer: What if all the men who show an erotic interest in the girl start to turn up dead and the disturbed son of the wealthy couple begins to suspect she may be a brutal killer, even as he sees disturbing signs within himself that he might be to blame?
There is no question that Ms Zimmerman is a masterful writer; her prose is beautiful and she brilliantly captures the unreliable voice of the couple's son, Hugo Delegate, who narrates the story. Hugo is both repelled and fascinated by Bronwyn, the "savage girl," whose past is slowly revealed as Hugo's suspicions and attraction to her deepen. The world of Gilded Age New York also comes to vivid, detailed life; we feel the hypocrisy and emphasis on lineage and social position as the curiosity-obsessed Delegates seek to put one over on their peers by turning Bronwyn into something she is not. Bronwyn fascinates in her contradictions - alluring yet remote, with a tendency to slip out after-hours to roam the streets, wearing a glove fitted with claws. However, her distance from the narrative voice and Hugo's preoccupation with a variety of other concerns dampen the plot's thrust, as he's distracted both by his own torment and his family's foibles. At times, there simply is too much story in this heady brew, diluting the lethal mystery at its heart.
Nevertheless, the experience of reading it turns compulsive, as the underside of the Gilded Age is torn asunder by the introduction of the wild within us all - a metaphor for how we seek to curb our baser instincts, forcing our repressions to find other, more unsavory ways to erupt. Hugo's confession turns chilling as we realize how far his family has gone and the terrible price exacted of them, while Bronwyn's own secrets lead to an excellent denouement. In the end, we find ourselves questioning: Who is truly the savage here?