Wild Boy – Guardian review

Natural causes

Jill Dawson’s insights illuminate the feral child of Aveyron’s story in her moving retelling of his re-education, Wild Boy

Michael Newton
Saturday September 27, 2003
The Guardian

Wild Boy
by Jill Dawson
304pp, Hodder, £14.99

This is a true story. In 1800, in the stilled turmoil of post-revolutionary France, a 12-year-old boy was discovered living wild in the woods near Aveyron. He had been out there, alone, living rough for five, perhaps seven years. Whoever had abandoned him had cut the child’s throat and left him to die. There was still a neat clean scar a few inches long across the boy’s neck. He was brought to Paris, where expectations surrounding him were intense. Here it seemed, at last, was a genuine child of nature, that Rousseauist figure in whose name the revolution had been fought. Natural philosophers and the intellectuals of the day excitedly looked forward to meeting the embodiment of our lost innocence.

They were disappointed. The boy was anything but a noble savage. He had no language, was dirty, unresponding, stinking of the forest from which he came, and given to incessant rocking, locked within the impenetrable prison of himself. At this point, the boy’s fate was most likely to be an asylum, where he would remain until he died. However, a young and ambitious surgeon, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, intervened, declaring that the wild boy’s condition was the inevitable result of his abandonment. How could he be normal after all his experiences? Itard took over the boy’s education, seeking to draw him back into the social realm.

Jill Dawson’s excellent new novel, Wild Boy, dramatises the process of that education. Its story may be familiar to some readers through François Truffaut’s marvellous film, L’Enfant sauvage, but Dawson takes what is already a compelling tale and successfully fleshes it out into a convincing and highly moving book.

She juxtaposes Itard’s circumspect narrative of the boy’s progress with another told by Madame Guerin, the house-keeper who offered young Victor the tenderness and motherly love that his male teacher could not provide. These parallel story-tellers act out on a larger scale the novel’s fascination with flawed moments of sympathy, misunderstandings and fractured tenderness.

Characters reach out to each other, but their gestures fall short. Their clumsy approaches to intimacy permeate the book. At the centre of these tender failures stands Victor, the wild boy himself, a child who can only fleetingly recognise an other, or all too briefly give the transient gift of his own presence.

Dawson is particularly good at demonstrating how Itard shares the same flaws as his savage pupil. Similarly removed and sickeningly bashful, Itard fails to receive affection from those who offer it to him, or to grant it to those he undoubtedly loves. The boy is the mirror of his own failure. In him, he sees the child he himself once was, and the boy he now loves. Yet, agonisingly, he cannot express the love that he feels either to himself or to the boy. Meanwhile, he watches with jealous regret as the boy enjoys an apparently far more uncomplicated relationship with Madame Guerin.

Itard sets out to prove that Victor could only gain humanity by becoming a fully civilised being: the boy’s savagery disgusts him. And yet, in the process of educating him, that disgust turns to envy. The fastidious surgeon begins to see in the boy’s wildness a world of intense feeling that he has long ago forsaken. This is a book that is aptly in love with the sensual world in which the boy moves. The novel swims with scents: of leaves, of flesh, of chocolate melting, of almonds, hot chicken fat, coffee-grounds, the perfume of whores, the giant sequoia, the scent of soap and violets on the skin of Madame Guerin’s daughter.

Dawson brings insights to the novel that she has gained from her relationship with her son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. This is both a novel about the past and about the present experience of living with an autistic child. In the process of working out her story, Dawson deftly takes on some fascinating themes: the relationship between men and the maternal; guilt and responsibility; the possibility of our being granted a second chance in life. She revivifies a piece of history with emotional intelligence, fleshing out the few documented facts with an admirably perceptive grasp of human nature.

At its heart, this remains a novel about unrequited love. The characters move around each other in a dance of jealous affection and unspoken attraction. And there between them is young Victor, a boy adrift; passionately engaged, but elsewhere. We face him, and for an instant he offers the grace of a direct glance. There he is; the boy is in there, although the fugitive moment has gone, and he is lost again, back, like the wild boy he once was, alone in the hidden woods.

·Michael Newton is the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children (Faber).

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