Book Review: The Savage Instinct

The Fiction Addiction

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The Savage Instinct(novel cover art from the publisher)

When The Savage Instinct opens, Clara Blackstone is being released from the asylum after a mental breakdown. Clara plans to live quietly and avoid annoying her husband so she'll never be sent back to the madhouse, but it turns out that leaving the asylum is just the beginning of her trials and mysteries. Her meetings with accused serial murderer, Mary Ann Cotton, aren't even the darkest or most surprising part of this page-turner about madness and control.

This review contains spoilers! Stop now to avoid any reveals!

Back at home, there is a depressing repetition to Clara and her husband Henry's domestic life. No matter what Clara says or does, she annoys him, and Henry is constantly threatening her with a return to the madhouse if she doesn't improve her behavior. Then, as the more of the drama unfolds, this continues to cycle. She makes escape plans, he thwarts her and threatens her with the asylum, she sneaks off again, etc., etc. It works as a powerful symbol of marriage at the time (Of course a husband can control his wife's money and property! Of course a husband can read and censor his wife's mail!) but it felt a bit odd and repetitive for individual characters.

Fortunately for Clara, volunteering as a prison visitor to read the Bible with imprisoned women, is a respectable upper-class occupation. She becomes a regular visitor to the accused serial killer Mary Ann Cotton. It all just fell into place, almost like the two women had a mystical connection that removed normal roadblocks.  The question of Mary Ann Cotton is a dark one -- there's no question that she was widowed multiple times and that her children and stepchildren died, but how many of the deaths around her were murder and how many were crushing poverty? It's an even darker question because this is a historical character, so these deaths actually happened. 

We see this lack of options in Clara's life, too. Clara's violent breakdown after her baby was stillborn doesn't seem unreasonable, especially remembering that childbirth for a upperclass woman at that time would involve loads of painful and questionable medical treatments. It was considered kind and sensible to take the stillborn baby away from the mother immediately, but Clara is (quite reasonably) unable to accept any of this. Although medical "care" at her delivery and in the asylum includes some really horrible treatments, this is carried out by doctors and nurses doing what they consider necessary medical procedures, for Clara's own good, because of course they know better than Clara does. This blend of disturbing, everyday medical practice, and Clara's natural reactions makes a compelling, frightening drama. 

This overall lack of women's rights is the main theme, and creates a real sense of desperation in both of the important characters. It makes for a compelling plot, with Clara in danger from all sides and Mary Ann's life already in danger, but at times the narrative feels a bit heavy-handed when a wife's situation (and the lack of property and divorce rights) must be spelled out to Clara. The late 1800s are new to readers, but this is Clara's regular life.

I wasn't entirely sure about Henry's goals, which I think was an intentional choice (just like Clara wasn't entirely sure). But I was still confused about what he wanted to happen. If his goal was her inheritance, he wasn't taking the most direct route. Why show her the asylum to threaten her? Why take her out of the asylum at all? Why not just stick her somewhere she could be reasonably well-cared-for while he spent her money and went after a younger model? Did he marry her, already planning to drive her insane to get the money, or was her breakdown at the stillbirth a lucky break for him? 

Overall, this was an engaging historical novel about desperation and power. Women are driven into impossible, no-win situations, and this gives us sympathy for some of the shocking choices. There's a gothic, dark feel to the whole story, and the frightening shadow of the asylum and the prison hang over the whole novel. 

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