17 January 2011

Book of the Week (85): "The Girl Savage" by Katherine Rundell

Finding a book you love is always a delightful experience. But there’s something particularly special, I think, when it’s a writer’s debut. There’s a particular thrill of discovery, and of promise. That’s what I felt, certainly, reading The Girl Savage, a first novel by Katherine Rundell. I can’t wait for her second.

The Girl Savage is partly set in Zimbabwe, home to young Will (Wilhelmina), who lives on Two Tree Hill farm with her father, her friends, and the farm’s kindly owner Captain Browne. Unlike the bleak Zimbabwe of Jason Wallace’s recent Costa-winning Out of Shadows, however, Will’s world is one you will long to live in. The place blazes with flavour and colour and touch – and Will’s experiences blaze, too. She lives an intense, unfettered life. Eating fruit off the trees, galloping bareback across the farm, poised in silence watching how beetles move, sitting in her tree-house with her friend Simon, gathering by the fire to bake bananas with brown sugar. Everything is vivid, heightened. Her beloved father calls her Wildcat. She is happy and brave and free.

But then Will is sent to live in grey England, to Leewood, a starchy, horribly clean boarding school. The tricks she’s learned for survival back at Two Tree Hill are no use to her here. There are rules at Leewood, but the ones she knows do not apply. As one of the teachers points out when Will asks to sleep outdoors, “This is England, my dear! This is the land of common sense.”

Will runs away. But surviving in London won’t be easy, as Will could not be more out of place. (Though to be clear, she is not foreign; she’s “just in the wrong country”.) And will she make it back home?

Will is a fine, strong character, and there’s some really beautiful writing here – phrases that make you think afresh about things you thought you knew already, which not many writers can do. It’s life-affirming without being too self-indulgent or too glib. There are flaws, I think, too – about half-way through I had my doubts about the relative balance of the weights of the story’s three parts (the farm in Zimbabwe, Leewood School, and running wild in London to the conclusion), and there are just occasional moments when there is simply too much writing in it (turns of phrase that are well-wrought and bright and impressive, to be sure, but also obtrusive and perhaps over-wrought when something simpler and less distracting would have done better), but these are small cavils only, and nothing to detract from a really impressive debut and a really heartening, enjoyable read. When do I get book two?

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

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