Savage Lands by Clare Clark

DATE FINISHED: September 7th, 2011

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Sold by her father in Paris to become a wife in the ‘prosperous’ new colony of Louisiana, Elisabeth Savaret finds her expectations confounded at every turn – especially when she falls violently in love with the man she marries, the charming but untrustworthy Babelon.  Having been left as an observer of the local Ouma ‘savages’ throughout his teenage years, Auguste Guichard is befriended by Babelon, a move which shapes the lives of the three protagonists from that moment forth.

THOUGHTS:  Although there are one or two moments when Clark’s narrative makes brief and unaccountable leaps, for the most part this is a well-written novel, with strong, considered language accompanying strong, considered characters.  I am grateful that Clark avoids stereotypes and her characters have character which is ingrained rather than painted on, and even so, enables personal growth as the result of their experiences.  The historically accurate backdrop plays successfully against the smaller, everyday concerns of the human lives involved.

There is a leap over a number of years partway through the book, and I felt the characters introduced in this second part of the narrative (Vincente, Huerst) were not developed as fully as the characters followed through from the beginning.  I felt they had slightly more to say than they were allowed which in itself adds an element of interest, not to mention leaving narrative opportunities open for a potential sequel (?).  (After brief research into the history of Louisiana, dramatic events continue to follow the period actually portrayed in the novel, so a colourful backdrop is certainly available for future development…)  Despite this ‘criticism’, the novel draws to a calm, understated conclusion (neatly avoiding a sensationalist or unnecessarily dramatic denouement), and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed Savage Lands far more than I had anticipated.

FOLLOWING ON:  There is a distance in Clark’s portrayal of her characters which reminded me of Property by Valerie Martin.  I have not read it yet, but suspect The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende will prove an interesting historical sequel to Savage Lands (set in the same area during a slightly later time period).  A more contemporary novel set in Louisiana that is worth looking out for is Oyster by John Biguenet.  And in retrospect, the style and subject of this novel remind me quite strongly of The Secret River by Kate Grenville (settlers of a far-off colony, their interactions with each other as well as the indigenous peoples).

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