The historical fiction of Pauline Holdstock covers an array of time and place. Her previous novel, Into the Heart of the Country, longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012, examined life in 18th-century Canada. Her new novel is set in 19th-century France. The Hunter and the Wild Girl resembles the earlier book in that it deals with cruelty and kindness in human nature.
The atmosphere Holdstock evokes is instantly upsetting and creepy: a young girl escapes from a filthy hut where she has been kept captive. She runs for six days. But instead of seeking help, she tries to hide from the inhabitants of Freyzus, the small village she stumbles across. Freyzus was once a bustling mill town, but lack of water has forced the mill to a standstill, and consequently much of the village’s purpose has disappeared.
For her part, the girl – who has been feral for most of her life – is focused on her own hunger and considers all human beings dangerous. When she is spotted, a chase ensues, and the girl leaps into a gorge to evade the dogs and men pursuing her. The villagers, thinking she might not have been carried away by the river, form a search party. The mayor, Raimon Pailhès, takes charge, and a young boy named Felip Maraval is lowered by ropes into the gorge. Felip tells the men that he has found the girl lying on a rock ledge, but when another boy is lowered down, he is unable to locate her. The townspeople conclude that Felip lied, but later that night, they begin to suspect that the feral girl may in fact have been there and somehow managed to flee.
By this point, it has become clear that Holdstock is interested in exploring how myths are created and how they affect us. But myth often has roots in reality; the feral child who winds up in Freyzus is undeniably real, and captivates the town’s inhabitants.
On the other side of the river from Freyzus and higher up in the hills stands the decaying Chateau d’Aveyrac. Its sole inhabitant, Peyre Rouff, neglects the building and spends most of his time engaged in taxidermy. Rouff’s attempts to make dead animals appear lifelike are a response to the tragic death of his young son more than 13 years earlier. His wife has left him, and Rouff now lives in self-imposed exile, until he encounters the strange girl.
The third-person narrator moves among various characters in the novel, but the two central figures, Rouff and the girl, are so seriously damaged that it’s a challenge to forge any connection with them. Most of the characters seem either locked in unhappy solitude or forced to reckon with the difficulty of living in a place where privacy is impossible. Holdstock does a terrific job dramatizing this, and conveying the pain that accompanies the loss of a loved one.
She also deals, as in previous books, with issues of class. The chateau was built as a hunting lodge by a wealthy seigneur who lives elsewhere and has stopped returning to his former abode. The problems encountered by the people of Freyzus are the result of the seigneur diverting the town’s water for his own purposes, with no consideration for the effect such action would have on the village. Raimon Pailhès is determined to correct this situation, but as with so many of his attempts at fixing problems, his solutions only cause more problems.
The Hunter and the Wild Girl is not an easy read. The sorrow in the book is nearly relentless. And while Holdstock is gifted at metaphor – particularly those involving flight and freedom – it takes a while to get into the rhythms of the language. The most solid connections are between the girl and the landscape of southern France, and between Rouff and his dead son. Holdstock develops an almost mystical (albeit extremely limited) affiliation between the girl and Rouff, but this verges on the classically romantic. Because so little is known about the girl, and because her behaviour is driven entirely by survival instincts, she seems both literally and figuratively otherworldly and untouchable.
Possibly the most arresting aspect of the novel, apart from the exquisite sense of place, is Holdstock’s implied invitation to consider the essence of a human being. Freedom and connection are essential, the novel suggests, and the bonds that hold us together can also destroy us.