First, it’s the cover design and the size. Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl, is beautifully presented. It fits in your hands nicely, small but solid. The cover contains an image of old, crumpled paper with cursive font and a delicate flying bird. It’s simple and elegant. I liked it the minute I saw it.
Second, it’s the inside. This book is magical. It’s a fairy tale, it’s magic realism, it’s a beautiful story about grief and freedom. The Hunter and the Wild Girl can be read in so many ways.
In a fictional Southern France at, perhaps, the beginning of the twentieth century, a feral girl escapes the bonds of her captor and rushes headlong through the woods. Coming upon a village, she attempts to steal food and, instead, is chased by the townsfolk into the hills where she leaps from a gorge and vanishes. She becomes a mystical figure to the superstitious townspeople – did she drown? Or did she fly away? She becomes a curse on the town, the reason things begin to go badly.
Up in the mountains, at an old chateau, Peyre works in solitude on his bizarre collection of stuffed animals. Peyre is wallowing in grief following the loss of his son in an accident. He has become a recluse in this chateau, the gatekeeper for the non-existent owner. He was subtly pushed out of the town years ago by the townspeople because he, like the feral girl, is thought to be cursed. In the Orangerie, Peyre has created his masterpiece, every living creature in the forest that surrounds his chateau placed in natural situations, still and silent. A taxidermied Eden. Peyre, living as a hermit, manages for years to keep his grief at bay until the day the wild girl appears out of nowhere. Even though Peyre does not want contact with the outside world, his innate compassion forces him to attempt to capture and tame her. Throughout The Hunter and the Wild Girl, Peyre learns that “a human child developing in the wild, free of influence, free of society,” can actually be an idyllic thing, if only everyone would just leave her alone.
This novel reminded me, strangely, of two of my favourite movies: Edward Scissorhands and Pan’s Labryinth. There is the taxidermy, reminiscient of the topiary statues in Edward Scissorhands. There is the humour and wit of the townspeople, almost buffoons at times, stereotypes of themselves, that reminds me of the suburban dwellers in Edward Scissorhands. There is the mix of reality and fairy-tale, the magical realism and the climactic, wild, rushing ending here that is similar in small ways to Pan’s Labryinth – the violent, fast-paced, powerful summing up of both stories. And there is the wild girl who sees the world with the same fear and confusion of the child in Pan’s Labryinth. Both children know that adults and their beliefs, their wars, their terrors, are intimidating and terrifying. They both show us that, in the end, blending reality with fiction may be a child’s only escape.
Pauline Holdstock’s language is so powerful, her writing so wrought with emotion and beauty, that you become fully lost in her world. Take, for example, her description of the townspeople discussing the wild girl:
The cat rolls in the dust. The old men suck on their pipes in silence until the thought of the girl summons other feral creatures from the hill to squat at their feet there under the marronnier – though evidence of their existence is less robust and no one remembers on what authority it rests.
Or a quick image of the feral girl in nature, showing the reader her animal-like awareness and innocence:
When she was not hungry she lived without aim – brushing her forearm against the long tines of rosemary and inhaling its scent, rubbing her shoulder gently on warmed stone, like one of the cats. Sometimes she would crouch for an hour or more, in a spot of dappled sun, hugging her knees, rocking, perhaps listening.
Peyre’s taxidermy extends the theme of grief and loss and guilt. But it also plays with the idea that art and creativity are a kind of medication, a healing for the artist: “His work grew in importance and came to mean for him not just restoration of the life that he had taken – or why then take it? – but some kind of immortality achieved, perhaps bestowed, where before there was no hope.”
Holdstock’s prose evokes a lush natural world, every detail examined selectively. The reader’s senses are continually heightened. How the wind whistles through the brush, or how the dirt smells metallic or the feel of a prick from a thorn. Colours are vibrant and rich. Reading this novel is an evocative and sensual experience.
There are lessons in this fairy tale. There usually are. We can’t have happily-ever-after without learning something. We learn that there is a need for modernity, but we also learn, through the explosive ending of this novel, how damaging modern life can be if it’s not managed properly. We learn to appreciate reality, but also how to relish the magical and mystical child within. These morals are there, but Pauline Holdstock writes them so deeply that they don’t interfere with the magic of her novel.
Goose Lane | 336 pages | $32.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0864928627