“Wild Boy” by Jill Dawson (Hodder & Stoughton)

Tackling the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, an “enfant sauvage” discovered in the South of France at the beginning of the 19th century, British novelist Jill Dawson delivers a compelling historical novel of uncommon intimacy. Victor, as he was named, is today considered the first documented case of autism, and Dawson herself has a son who suffers from a form of this condition. The author’s first-hand familiarity with the disorder would account for the deep feeling invested in the book. “Wild Boy” has none of the dryness often associated with this genre; it is a vibrantly emotional, if slightly uneven, piece of work.

The novel is alternately narrated by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, the ambitious young doctor who sought to “civilize” Victor, and Madame Guérin, the middle-aged governess who looked after his everyday needs until his death at age 40. The juxtaposition of these two voices proves rich in unexpected ironies: Guérin, despite her sensitivity, emerges as the more fiercely pragmatic character, while the cerebral Itard is finally evoked as a lonely dreamer. It is to Dawson’s credit that the conflicting agendas of these two characters is never oversimplified into a struggle for Victor’s soul; each comes across as earnestly trying to do what he or she thinks is right.

Dawson portrays the two caretakers with such psychological nuance, that Victor, by comparison, remains a frustratingly vague figure. His character — the tender but volatile wild child — feels a bit too familiar. At it’s best, “Wild Boy” captures powerfully the obsessiveness, which caring for this kind of person can generate. The haziness at the story’s center — the depiction of Victor — is perhaps a testament to the eternally enigmatic quality of these children.
JF

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