The Savage Instinct by M.M. DeLuca follows Clara Blackstone after her release from a mental institution. She was forcibly committed after a stillbirth and received no actual care. Instead, she suffered a variety of traumatic and dehumanizing “treatments.” At home, Clara struggles to be calm and “normal” enough to avoid her husband Henry’s wrath, but he finds fault everywhere. He never says anything kindly, or even neutrally—every line drips with condescension and loathing. His behavior is so extreme that “caricature” is the only word that comes to mind. It also means that for the first half of the novel, he and Clara repeatedly have the same interaction: She offends him by existing, and he responds with cruelty.
I think Henry is meant to embody every problem a married woman might face in the 1800s, but even women who weren’t hated by their husbands didn’t receive good psychiatric treatment. The real villain is a system that viewed women as fundamentally inferior and permitted them a narrow band of acceptable behavior. Even if Henry were a smidge less evil, he might have approved some of Clara’s treatments, persuaded by doctors that they were medically necessary. Yikes. It’s worth noting that these treatments are described in visceral detail and are extremely disturbing.
The story opens up a bit when Clara begins visiting the prison and spending time with Mary Ann Cotton, a woman suspected of poisoning 20+ people, including several of her husbands and a dozen children. The Savage Instinct has earned comparisons to Alias Grace for how it attempts to show Cotton’s charges in an ambiguous light—is she guilty, or innocent? Either way, her scenes with Clara are interesting because she’s the only person not trying to force Clara into a specific type of behavior. With her encouragement and occasional advice, Clara attempts to escape her husband’s control and unravel the lies he has told her.
There’s a lot of potential here, and the historical elements are well handled, but Henry’s one-dimensional nature and that of his cruel associate made some moments repetitive. Sometimes, this repetition is caused by inflexible characters having too-similar conversations in multiple scenes, and sometimes it’s caused by major plot points happening more than once (can’t say more on that without spoilers).
Overall: 3.0 (out of 5.0) Suspenseful and disquieting, but a tighter plot and richer characters would have made for a more engaging read.
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares (via NetGalley).
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