"Savage Lands" by Clare Clark is set in Louisiana in 1704 and follows the precarious fate of the French colony in the New World. The French are holding onto their new territory by their fingertips as they are weakened by disease, lack of supplies and hostile nations on all sides.
As readers, we enter the new colony with a group of young women sent from France, intended to be brides for the settlers there. The young women have no idea what to expect from their new environment or the men they are supposed to marry but are certainly shocked when they arrive in the struggling settlement of Mobile.
One of these prospective brides is Elisabeth Savaret, who is one of two protagonists of the book, but probably the most central one. Elisabeth is shown to be different from the other women from the start and holds herself aloof from them. She is often described as brave and independent which is what draws her future husband to her.
Elisabeth marries Jean-Claude Babelon, a soldier, but we are never really sure how they come to be married. Elisabeth does think back to first seeing and meeting him but it's all brushed over very quickly which is a bit strange. Elisabeth is shown to be infatuated with her husband and subjugates herself to him completely. Babelon is a selfish man who is out for himself and in his role as a soldier he moves throughout the colony wheeling and dealing with the friendly Indian tribes.
Clark also introduces us to Auguste, a ship's boy who has come over to the New World in search of opportunity. Auguste is left by the governor of the colony among a local tribe of Indians in order for him to watch them and learn their language. Auguste too, is a character who holds himself apart from others and so is vulnerable to Babelon's charm when he visits the camp.
Clark follows Babelon through the eyes of the two people who love him - Elisabeth and Auguste, until his selfishness causes disaster. Although Elisabeth is shown to be an intelligent woman she never seems to see the type of man that her husband is and does terrible things to keep him happy.
I found this a difficult book to read as it just didn't draw me in. The synopsis sounded very interesting and the description was often well written but there seemed to be a vacuum at the centre of the book. Although Elisabeth is the main character I never really felt as a reader that I understood her or any of her actions. She was often an unlikeable character and although she suffered terribly it was hard to have any sympathy for her.
I did like Auguste a bit more, as his terrible loneliness and feeling of being different as a child was well written. He was a much more sympathetic character than Elisabeth and his motivations seemed a bit clearer than Elisabeth's where Babelon was concerned - although he loved him, he also saw him as he was.
Central events in the book were often swept over and remained vague until a brief recollection from a character would recall it some time later. I found this quite difficult and found that the novel struggled to retain my interest. Clark did recount some of the difficulties of the small colony and their struggle for survival but much of the dialogue between the French women was them moaning and making digs at Elisabeth which soon got boring.
The larger events happening around the colony were referred to now and again, as the English tried to bribe the Indian tribes friendly with the French to become their allies instead. However, not much timFe was spent on these instances and they were merely used by Clark as catalysts to move forward the awkward Elisabeth/Babelon/Auguste trinity amongst their fellow colonists.
The novel is split into two parts - before and after - but the pace of the novel doesn't pick up in the second part and I found my old frustrations coming back again. Even with a new character, the same vagueness was evident (aaargh!) and we were soon back to Elisabeth and Auguste. I was really forcing myself to finish the book by this point as I thoroughly disliked the way it was written and still disliked the main character Elisabeth.
I wouldn't recommend this book as I found it so frustrating to read, it was well written but in a way I disliked immensely and couldn't get to grips with. The story seemed quite vague and didn't draw me in or keep me interested. The characters seemed very distant most of the time, if not downright unlikeable. There was no real look at the wider picture, just parts of the lives of the colonists and not even very interesting parts!
In short, the novel doesn't live up to its promise for me, which is a shame as I think it could have been an interesting read in many respects.