Review: 'The Savage Instinct' by Marjorie DeLuca
Pub. Date: 5/18/2021
Perfect for fans of Margaret Atwood's and Hannah Kent's , this taut psychological thriller offers a delicious take on deviant and defiant Victorian women in a time when marriage itself was its own prison.
England, 1873. Clara Blackstone has just been released after one year in a private asylum for the insane. Clara has two goals: to reunite with her husband, Henry, and to never—ever—return to the asylum. As she enters Durham, Clara finds her carriage surrounded by a mob gathered to witness the imprisonment of Mary Ann Cotton—England’s first female serial killer—accused of poisoning nearly twenty people, including her husbands and children.
Clara soon finds the oppressive confinement of her marriage no less terrifying than the white-tiled walls of Hoxton. And as she grows increasingly suspicious of Henry’s intentions, her fascination with Cotton grows. Soon, Cotton is not just a notorious figure from the headlines, but an unlikely confidante, mentor—and perhaps accomplice—in Clara’s struggle to protect her money, her freedom and her life.
As I'm going through a hyper-focus phase now, with mental health, so, a few years back, I was obsessed with female murderers, specifically poisoners. I'm still working my way through the excellent non-fiction book Poisonous Muse by Sara L. Crosby, but this is how I knew about Mary Ann Cotton, which initially drew my attention to The Savage Instinct. What would it be like to encounter someone like that? I was especially intrigued by the fact that DeLuca clearly meant to tell a tale about the female plight, about the lack of opportunities and rights women endured during the 19th century. As such, The Savage Instinct played nicely into my current area of focus. DeLuca does not shy away from the horror of asylums and the difficulty, both emotionally and physically, of living a restricted life, which means that this can be quite a difficult read at moments. The divergence between the upper class experience of Clara and the working class life of Mary Ann Cotton was also really well-done and super important, in my eyes, to the balance of the novel. While a Gothic suspense novel, The Savage Instinct is also a novel full of interesting and confronting ideas.
Clara is on a train, leaving the insane asylum, which was her home for the last year, behind. She is on her way to Durham, where her husband has a good job and a new house, and is only waiting for her to bring his life back to normal. Upon arrival, their carriage gets jostled by the crowd waiting for the murderess Mary Ann Cotton, recently accused of almost 20 poisonings. What seems a chance encounter becomes much more as Clara has to confront the fact that, just maybe, her husband and her new home are not good for her. DeLuca draws an intricate portrait of Clara's mindset, jumping back and forth between her life in Durham and events a year later. As the two timelines come closer to meeting, the tension certainly ramps up. It was Clara's encounters with Cotton, however, which I enjoyed most. This is where the Gothic atmosphere of the novel truly ramps up and where characterisation, plot, and message unite. The further tale around it was excellent, but not necessarily what kept me engaged.
This is my first novel by Marjorie DeLuca and I enjoyed the way she balanced all the various elements of her novel. The Gothic elements are perfect highlights during an otherwise quite straightforward historical fiction narrative, and yet these highlights bring a certain kind of gravitas to this external narrative as well. I don't know if that makes much sense, but seeing how the encounters between these two women have an effect, how Clara's upper class life is shaken by the loss of power through her stay at the insane asylum and through her encounter with a working class woman, really worked for me and made me care for her a lot more than I might otherwise have done. DeLuca also successfully ramps up the tension towards the end of the novel, although things also happen very quickly to tie up all ends. I nonetheless hadn't expected the twist, so that was lovely. What stuck with me in the end from The Savage Instinct is the careful and precise way in which DeLuca employed her descriptive details, whether it was capturing the charm of Durham, the horror of 19th century asylums, or the tightening nets around Clara and Cotton. Details never go to waste in The Savage Instinct and I look forward to reading more by DeLuca in the future.
I give this novel...
While a quick read, The Savage Instinct has a whole lot to offer. Balancing its Gothic flavour and suspense plot with a good dose of historical reality and social commentary, DeLuca presents an intriguing novel that will have you both thinking and on the edge of your seat.