Hardcover, 416 pages
Published March 6th 2014 by Viking Adult
Savage Girl tells the story of Hugo Delegate who, blinded with the love for the titular character, confesses to a series of murders he may or may not have committed. The novel is told in flashback as Hugo relates the story of the savage girl to his lawyers whilst in prison awaiting trial for the murders he has taken blame for. The Delegates are old money, the aristocrats of New York, envied for their wealth and lineage. Freddy and Anna-Marie, Hugo’s parents, have the wealthy penchant of taking in people and taking up causes that catch their attention and engage their interests. Savage Girl is one such person. She is a substitute daughter for Anna-Marie whose own died in infancy and for Freddy, she’s a way to definitively prove the nature versus nature debate. So they spring the savage girl from her captors who use her as a spectacle with which to rake in money from voyeurs and welcome her into the fold of their family. Hugo, however, finds himself kept at a distance from his new sister who is followed by a series of murders – in fact, every man she looks at or interacts with in a non-platonic manner is found dead and literally emasculated.
This novel is epic in scope and wondrously researched. The writing is beautiful and perhaps the one true strength of the story. The sentences are woven with such precision and delicacy that reading them out is a pleasure. As for the characterization, the novel is limited in what it perceives and narrates due to the first person point of view and Hugo is an unreliable narrator but almost overly so. The reader is led in turns to suspect Hugo or Bronwyn (the savage) as the true murderer but if the reader is familiar with these types of novels, the reader will be well aware that these are merely red herrings and the true story lies in the hints sprinkled throughout the narrative. The novel gives a glimpse of high society in the early days of New York and I loved the casual mention of the statue of liberty, then in pieces, that Hugo makes.
The first half of the novel is strong if slow and as the story gained momentum, I readied myself for something stunning. I expected the denouement to leave me swooning but alas, that was not to be. The problem here is that there is already a distance between the reader and Hugo because well, he may be the murderer and he’s not easy to sympathize with, at least not for me. Then Bronwyn, as the savage girl has a name, is touted by Hugo as universally irresistible and I could not fathom her attraction. She is beautiful, yes, as Hugo once and again reiterates but he also states that she has a magnetic appeal and everyone seems to love her but I don’t understand or I was not able to see that elusive quality of hers that bewitched everyone. From what Hugo narrates and what I could glean from the story was that she was remarkably complex, rather cold and a blank slate. That is all.
The climax when it came was still puzzling and there is a love story but that too left me wondering. I was not convinced of the love that everyone spoke about. And in fact, I am still puzzled. It would be interesting to do a feminist reading of this piece and chart the savage girl’s growth though I fear it might be a bit difficult to do as the novel isn’t focalized on her. We see her through the lens of patriarchy and she’s often objectified as a sexual object. Though Zimmerman writes Bronwyn’s attempts to distinguish herself from other ladies who are born into and accept willingly their position as women, expressing gender as defined by high society, ultimately Bronwyn does act in ways that point towards her induction into the patriarchal society she appears to rebuff initially. When all is said and done, I did enjoy the glimpse of the train, the luxury and lifestyles of the rich and famous. I will definitely look up this author’s other titles just to see if I like them better than this one because as I said, the writing is beautiful.