October 26, 2003
Jill Dawson’s Wild Boy is a sophisticated attempt to reanimate a historical oddity, the discovery of a child who had apparently survived in the forests of Aveyron without any human contact for an unknown (but considerable) number of years. Arriving in a Paris recently ravaged by the Terror, outlandish in appearance and behaviour and utterly without language, “Victor” is turned over to the care of Itard, a conscientious young doctor, and a sensible, maternal governess, Madame Guérin, who has herself been the mother of an unruly and uncommunicative child. Dawson uses the device of shifting points of view to introduce different ideas, but she is more skilled at both preserving historical complexity and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
In particular, she cleverly offsets the brutality of the French revolution with Victor’s supposed savagery, suggesting that, as a fractured society was slowly attempting to return to “civilised” cultural norms, a wild outsider was both a source of fear and delight, provoking in those who studied him intense feelings of unease and self-disgust. And perhaps her most fanciful proposal is also her most successfully achieved: that Victor had been abandoned to the forests because, in his previous life, he was an “idiot” child, simply unwanted and uncared for.
Subtly linking this daring narrative development with the more modern concept of autism, Dawson untethers her story from the past and allows it a more satisfying freedom. The inner life that she creates for Victor is, when coupled with the difficulties in expression experienced by both of his carers, one of the novel’s most moving and convincing aspects, persuading us that, rather than filleting documentary evidence to support her case, she has actually engaged with it in a productive and thoughtful manner.