cover image Victor: A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron

Victor: A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron

Mordicai Gerstein. Farrar Straus Giroux, $17 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-374-38142-4

In southern France in 1800, hunters capture a naked, filthy and speechless pre-adolescent boy, whom they bring into town slung from a pole. Eventually he is taken to Paris and placed in a school for deaf boys. There his alleged obliviousness to anything but food and nature cause doctors to label him an idiot, and he languishes, ignored, until a young doctor, Jean-Marc Itard, takes the boy into his care. Drawing on historical sources, Gerstein (The Wild Boy, reviewed above) gives an arresting account of Itard's variously enlightened and bumbling (at times, cruel) efforts to socialize the boy, whom he names Victor, and to control his subsequent ""explosive puberty."" This makes for compelling intellectual and social history, with a vividly limned setting, peppered with disquieting ruminations on the nature of humanity, God, love and sexuality, as well as gruesome tidbits about the French Revolution. As a novel, however, it is ultimately unsatisfying because Gerstein jumps ahead in time from the close of Itard's six-year study of Victor to a penultimate scene just before the subject's untimely death at age 40. Thus, he summarily disposes of his protagonists (e.g., a melodramatic subplot involving the housekeeper's daughter reads like a cobbled-on ""teen problem"" story, then peters out just as it gets interesting; Itard's one romance takes place off-stage). Rather than imagining the inner life of his characters, Gerstein keeps readers at arm's length; Victor and Itard remain enigmas. For mature readers. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)