My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Stiffly written at points, and beautifully in others, The Girl Savage is a book of peaks and troughs. Ultimately it’s an awkward read but one that retains a powerful sense of heart throughout. It is, as you may gather, somewhat confusing.
Wilhemina Silver (Will) has lived in Zimbabwe all her life with her widower father. Will lives a wild life in the bush; falling off horses, climbing trees, and in one particularly memorable incident, biting the head off a tick. It’s only when her father falls ill, and ultimately dies, that her life changes.
Because this is when Cynthia, her father’s girlfriend, makes her presence felt. Cynthia sends Will away to school in England and Will, naturally, struggles to fit in to her new world. Will she sink or will she swim in her new surroundings? And what will the schoolgirls make of the ‘girl savage’ in their midst?
Like I said, this book is a bit difficult. I felt it wasn’t sure what it was meant to be at points; whether an elegy to Africa, a fairytale of circumstantial events, or a fish out of water tale and I think it may have been stronger if it had been more defined. Whilst the Africa sections are very beautiful (they are word-pictures at points) and clearly written with a lot of love, some of the other elements fell a little flat. The school itself didn’t appear until a good halfway through the book and ultimately formed very little of the book as a whole. This meant that whilst yes, girls can be bitches,they were bitches really without any particular defined sense of context. I struggled, for example, to work out the time period this book is set in; wondering if it was historical at some points before realising at others that it was quite modern.
Will herself had a strong, unique voice, and I could hear her very well. She does slide into slightly Mary-Sue territory at times, but I never lost sense of her as a character. Whilst she is slimly defined, and almost more defined by her relationship with others, it is a technique that works well here with her voice. I loved it when she spoke; the stumbling mixture of Shona and English, capped off with an edgy Ja?
So there’s a lot of love in this book, a strong powerful heart, but also a lot of awkwardness to contend with. If you’re interested in the school story genre, do read this as the sort of fairytale nature of school isn’t one that’s explored that much these days. If you’re looking for a more fish out of water tale, I’d maybe plump for something like Pippi Longstocking / Opal Moonbaby instead.