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February 7, 2010

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Too thick with detail

A prominent historian once asked if I didn't get tired of the sort of research novelists often feel obliged to pursue. Must we really know how 19th-century Latvian lumberjacks brushed their teeth? Aren't you tempted to make things up? Coming from a historian, this sounded like heresy - or perhaps the historian's dream vacation. "Of course I'm tempted," I said. "I fudge, I make things up, but I also pounce on arcana." Moreover, to work under the constraints of historical fact can spur the imagination, just as working with rhyme and meter does for poets.

Clare Clark's "Savage Lands" combines a well-researched historical context, many hogsheads full of period detail and a fictional story to make a novel that requires no spur to its imaginings. Rather, just the opposite.

"Savage Lands" tells the story of the first French colonists in Louisiana and their struggle to survive in a ruthless time and place. In 1704, 23 women are sent to the colony to marry men they've never met. One of them, Elisabeth Savaret, is Clark's heroine.

To her credit, Clark does not sentimentalize the presumably intrepid character of the colony's pioneers. Most are either coarse and depressed (the women) or greedy, brutal and remorseless (the men), and the man Elisabeth marries, Jean-Claude Babelon, may be the worst of the lot.

He's an equal opportunity scoundrel, duping friends as well as enemies and enslaving local "savages," including those friendly to the French.

He even hatches a scheme to trade Indian slaves for Africans, pointing out that "the Negro makes an altogether better slave. That is why I propose to offer three savages for every two of them." Yet Elisabeth loves him with a passion Clark strives repeatedly to describe, in the process barely skirting the slippery slope to supermarket romance.

"When he touched her," we learn, "his lips and fingers exquisitely unhurried, every freckle, every tiny hair was his, each one charged and spangled with the light of him."

Under his influence, "her skin eased and opened. Her muscles melted. Even her bones softened, so that she moved with the indolence of a sun-drunk cat." The strongest character in the novel, Elisabeth is also the weakest when it comes to Jean-Claude, whom the book's jacket copy describes as "charismatic."

Charisma, admittedly, is almost as difficult as virtue to depict in fiction. Clark's solution to this problem is to leave Jean-Claude's inner life alone.

Of the novel's three main characters, Elisabeth and a young former cabin boy named Auguste are the more fully portrayed, and each comes under Jean-Claude's spell. He's the apex of their triangular desire - or, more accurately, their vanishing point, but that isn't enough to make him real.

In many respects, "Savage Lands" is a good old-fashioned (that is, slow and deliberate) 19th-century novel, with all the weight of material detail and all the unexpected turns of plot and shifts of time and place that we expect from such productions.

The physical world of Louisiana, its bursting ripeness and rot, becomes a metaphor for the characters' inner lives, and this is undoubtedly where the novel's strength lies.

Clark's descriptive prose contains some startling metaphors. In one passage, the night sky at dawn curls up at its edges, "exposing the gray-pink linings of the day." In another, a man's hand, extended for a handshake, swings "as if the bolts that attached it to the wrist had worked loose."

But the descriptions mount, and too often they read as though they're on steroids, straining for effect, as does much of Clark's writing. Indeed, the straining is a part of its effect, describing not only a swamp but the author's language, its fecundity as grotesque as it is shameless. Throughout "Savage Lands," the figurative language piles up like heavy jewelry, like layers of clothing, like armor, like ... You get the idea.

It drags down the poor sentences forced to wear it. As H.G. Wells said about Conrad's first novel, "his sentences are not unities, they are multitudinous tandems, and he has still to learn the great half of his art, the art of leaving things unwritten."


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