Fiction Review by Rita Donovan

Pauline Holdstock, The Hunter and the Wild Girl (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2015). Hardbound, 334 pp., $32.95.

The Hunter and the Wild GirlPauline Holdstock’s novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl, explores the territory between historical fiction and fairy-or-folktale—what is “fact” and what becomes “true”—between nature and artifice, and between the hunter and the hunted. Set in 1900s France, it is a brooding, dark story, yet imbued with the light that comes of hard-won insight.

Peyre is a hunter turned taxidermist. A terrible accident in the past killed his only son, Giles, and crippled Peyre’s marriage to Mathilde. The relationship beyond repair, Mathilde leaves Peyre, who struggles to make sense of his life. Peyre guides occasional hunting trips for the rich landowner, de Villiers, but taxidermy sustains his spirit. At first, he works to create specimens, “sewn to look uncannily like life.” He tries to replicate, but needs more. Perhaps unconsciously, he knows it is not enough to reproduce the look of something alive. His animals must remain true, otherwise, “it would be against nature,” but he begins to fashion the specimens with an artist’s eye and, “introduces some new thing to this world, something unknown.”

Then comes the wild girl, a feral child who has escaped captivity and lives as an animal on the land. She has found freedom by jumping down an escarpment to her presumed death, igniting the imaginations of a few townspeople and engendering the folk tale of the wild girl. She is everything Peyre is not; she lives through her body whereas he is in stasis, trapped in his grief and guilt. Her presence becomes monumental: “She arrived like the weather. Like a sickness, like a birth or a death, she changed everything.”

The reader observes this feral being, even as she observes Peyre. She has been in hiding, watching the man and his specimens. She notes: “The eyes of him unseeing. Dead like the wolf’s…he was both there and not there.” She doesn’t understand the stuffed animals and tries to eat one. She doesn’t understand Peyre either, but this lack of comprehension, this outsider view, allows the reader to see him as she does. When she accidentally kills his dog, she witnesses him gently cradling the dead animal, and, “there is something there that she longs to see again.”

Peyre starts to leave food out for the girl. They perform a slow, careful choreography of growing trust. At one point, she sees him smile and knows it means something. “Seeing it is to her more astonishing, more alive, than the present egg sliding down her throat…and there it is again, the line of meaning between them.” She senses, “an immeasurable shift in the order of things.” This, in many ways, is the essence of the story, the move from isolation to community, from grief to something else, “a call to wake from his eternal grief.” In his art, Peyre tries to perfect an imperfect world. When he takes the hunting parties out and they pose for the photographer, Peyre sees these men as artificial. As they wait for the photographer to set up the shot, “something in them leaked away as the seconds ticked by, until only the wolf seemed truly alive.”

Peyre’s creations are his life. Whereas he once referred to his work as his “silent Eden,” he now begins, “to work as one at odds…with his Maker.” He watches the girl in the snow— “she sweeps it into the air with her hands, kicks it into sprays with her feet,”— and wonders, “would there be winter in his Eden?” The child, too, is a quasi-creation, as he tries to train her and teach her. Peyre takes a photograph of the girl, a “smudge’ seen through binoculars. She becomes the human in his diorama of nature, “an indistinct smear on a glass plate.” This rendering of humanity as a distinct, but not dominant, species in the overall diorama, is telling. It is strangely liberating.

But his Eden is breached. The child is seen and reported upon, Peyre’s wife, Mathilde, returns and intensifies the pain and guilt. When the girl is captured and put on display in the village, it takes a young man, Felip, to help her escape. Felip has become entranced by the girl  and the folk tale of the girl, and this combination—the actual and the mythical—is the embodiment of all that is painful and all that is beautiful in this story. There is a man-made, yet almost biblical disaster, a flood, and much chaos. Peyre is heroic, taking the blame for the disaster he did not cause, and in this way achieves redemption; “…it was as if a door of a kind opened inside him and he let it.” Peyre learns, in the reality of the freed girl, that his dead son, too, can be freed, “He found he could contemplate the boy without pain.” At the closing of the story, there is a sense of peace that overcomes the bereavement. It is a worthy ending to this tale of things that are real, like death, and things created, like life. Pauline Holdstock’s story rewards the reader with that same sense of peace. Her last line resonates throughout.

—Rita Donovan

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 163-164