Despite its sedate and unassuming cover, Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl begins in a rush.
“With a shriek of splintering boards, the girl breaks into daylight and stands blinded, panting, sucking air as if it were a great hot soup, her chest heaving.”
This sentence and the following pages remind me of Tomson Highway’s opening scene in Kiss of the Fur Queen, as Abraham races towards the finish line in a race.
Immediately we readers are engaged in this girl’s story because she is racing too, but readers soon understand that she is not aiming to win.
Perhaps we notice with the ‘shriek’ and the ‘break’ or maybe we need the outwardly expressed desire to be ‘away’, offered a few sentences later.
We realize that we are witnessing an escape not a race, and immediately we sympathize with the hunted.
What is slower to come is a sense of the layers of narrative and characterization which echo that dynamic of pursuer and persued thoughout the work.
There are two central figures in this story, but perhaps even more importantly, there are two roles: several of the story’s prominent characters inhabit both.
Peyre Rouff for instance, was once a member of a small community in 19th-century France, with a wife and child to provide for; but for much of this story he lives in a state that many would describe as “wild”, living off a pot of soup for a week and devoting his waking and sober hours to creating art.
Just there, what I really wanted to say is that Peyre is creating not art, but life, or at least, as close as nearly as one can create life, with materials gathered by post and skills gained via years of practice.
And perhaps I might as well say that, for my use of the word ‘art’ could lead you to think he is painting watercolours or sculpting with clay, whereas the surprise of learning that Peyre becomes a renowned taxidermist is appropriately disorieting.
Peyre possesses (or acquires) a gift. But just as one cannot be hunted unless there is a hunter, the idea of one possessing a gift begs the corollary: Peyre also has (or acquires) a curse.
The Hunter and the Wild Girl feels like a humble and simple tale about a world in which the role of the village is so central that many French villagers believe Paris to be a different country; yet it also reads as an archetypal tale sketched in such broad strokes that readers can interpret it in an ovewhelming number of ways.
The narrative rushes and slows, darts and stops to take a breath; its course is like a stream whose underground bits move with unexpected speed and direction. (Pauline Holdstock gets the credit for this metaphor, although explaining why would be a spoiler.)
The prose itself erupts in fragments, then settles into long comma-soaked descriptive passages. The solidity of the story rests in theme.
What happens when a person bears a responsibility which is too substantial for one person to carry. What happens when one recreates one’s world around a set of bones-once-buried.
What happens when we are confronted by the bestial elements of a human eixistence. What happens when the conventional definitions of wilderness and civilization are insufficient.
What happens when an individual faces an inexpressible loss. What happens when a community has the opportunity to blame an individual for an inexplicable loss.
It didn’t surprise me that Pauline Holdstock’s novel was well-crafted; her Into the Heart of the Country was one of my favourites in 2011.
But what did surprise me? About 3/4 of the way into this novel, I began to want something for one of the characters, something that I couldn’t recall wanting for anyone before, fictional or otherwise. But then I realized that I had wanted it, but I called it something else. And now I have a new word for it. The Wild Girl showed it to me.