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Book review: "Savage Lands" by Clare Clark

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By Sybil Steinberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 24, 2010


By Clare Clark

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 384 pp. $25

Following her acclaimed "The Great Stink" and "The Nature of Monsters," British historical novelist Clare Clark returns with a powerful third novel, set in the early 1700s in the struggling French colony of Louisiana. Clark's descriptions of the land -- brutally hot, swampy, fetid with stagnant, mosquito-breeding water, unprotected from devastating spring floods and autumn hurricanes -- provide a richly atmospheric backdrop for the intertwined lives of three settlers who are newcomers to this unwelcoming terrain.

Sent from France in 1704 as part of a group of "casket girls" committed to marry the soldiers and shopkeepers in the nascent colony, Elisabeth Savaret, a bookish and outspoken young woman, is immediately smitten with Jean-Claude Babelon. Theirs is a passionate marriage, interrupted by Jean-Claude's frequent expeditions to nearby Indian tribes friendly to the French. He distributes gifts and muskets, secures food for the colony and tries to ensure that each tribe will not succumb to the blandishments of the English, who are also wooing these small and numerous Indian nations. Elisabeth, absorbed in her misery as she miscarries, only gradually realizes that Jean-Claude is ruthless in his pursuit of wealth and all too willing to compromise his principles by engaging in gun-running and slave-trading.

Meanwhile, Auguste Guichard, a 12-year-old boy forced by the colony's commandant to remain with a tribe of "savages" to learn their habits, develops an ear for the tongues of many tribal nations. When he returns to the settlement as a young man, he cherishes his friendship with Jean-Claude but also falls in love with Elisabeth, despite the difference in their ages. This never-acknowledged triangle and its complications eventually provoke tragic acts of betrayal.

Clark keeps her plot fresh and compelling by immersing us in the primitive conditions these colonists endure. Starvation when the crops fail, fear of attack by natives and frequent epidemics are constant challenges. The "savages" themselves acquire personality in Clark's poetic descriptions of their body decorations -- wild with tattoos -- and their rituals, tortures, dances and social behavior.

Equally potent as the encompassing sense of place, the moral complexities that influence these characters infuse "Savage Lands" with emotional resonance. Clark's commitment to historical color is matched by the dramatic arc of an engrossing story.

Steinberg was the forecasts editor of Publishers Weekly.

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