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Muse's Books

Books 71: Savage Lands by Clare Clark

UK Cover
Book 71: Savage Lands.
Author: Clare Clark, 2010.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Early 18th century.
Other Details: Trade paperback. 384 pages.

This novel opens in 1704 as Elizabeth Savaret arrives by ship at the French colony of Louisiana. She is part of a group of young French women who have come as prospective brides for the colonists. Elizabeth is a quiet, scholarly girl and she quickly falls in love with the charismatic and handsome Jean-Claude Babelon, a French Canadian ensign.

It is fairly obvious that despite this passionate marriage that her life isn't going to be much fun given her husband's 'bad boy' character and his frequent absences on various expeditions. Added to this are the harsh conditions of the colony and Elizabeth's estrangement from many of the other women there. Another main character is Auguste, a gentle soul, who was left as a boy among the local Native Americans to learn their language and report back on their activities. When he comes to reintegrate back into society, he and Jean-Claude develop a strong friendship. Auguste and Elizabeth also become close.

US Cover
The scope of the book covers a number of years and charts the fortunes of these characters and others as well as the colony itself. In 1719 a fourth major character enters the narrative. Vincente le Vannes is another French girl who has come to the New World as a bride-to-be. In her case she is pledged to marry a minor local nobleman. She brings a fresh perspective on the colony and how it is perceived back home in France.

As with 'The Nature of Monsters', Clark does a wonderful job of evoking her 18th century setting. I could almost feel the oppressive heat and experience the bleak conditions that the settlers had to deal with. It was easy to appreciate the tenuous hold that they had upon the land and it is quite amazing that the colony eventually prospered. However, she seemed to be restraining herself in terms of the story and her characters. As a result it felt rather dry in terms of the human experience with her passions poured into descriptions of place and the accuracy of the historical aspects.

While I started off with a great deal of empathy with Elizabeth, this rather slipped away and I almost had the feeling that Clark had rather lost interest in her part way through the book. Also, there were times when Vincente seemed a little too modern in her attitudes and felt underwritten. However, I loved Auguste and really wished there had been more details of his experiences with the Native Americans and more about the tribes in general.

I did find that Clark's unsparing realism became almost oppressive at times as she does paint a very pessimistic picture in terms of human interaction. Still I did enjoy the book for the strength of its historical accuracy and its geographical detail even if I longed for a little levity or romance. Overall, I felt that it had the potential to be a great work of historical fiction but somehow just missed the mark.
Tags: historical fiction, native american

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