Wild Talent: Gently feminist coming-of-age tale

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy novel review Eileen Kernaghan Wild TalentWild Talent by Eileen Kernaghan

While Wild Talent is very different from Eileen Kernaghan‘s 2000 novel, The Snow Queen, there are two major themes that the two novels have in common. Both feature young girls striking out precipitously on their own into an unsafe world. Both also address the frustrations of intelligent women up against the repressive mores of Victorian society. The result, in both cases, is a gently feminist coming-of-age tale with a strong sense of place and time.

Wild Talent tells the story of Jeannie Guthrie, a young Scottish farm girl who flees her home suddenly, fearing charges of witchcraft and murder after a telekinetic talent helps her fight off a would-be rapist. She reaches London, where she befriends Alexandra David and finds employment with Helena Blavatsky. The historical characters are fascinating, and Jeannie herself is delightfully complex — unusually courageous in some ways and so very unsure in others.

The greatest strength of Wild Talent is its vivid portrayal of the tumultuous times in which Jeannie lives. The drudgery of rural poverty, the decadence of absinthe-soaked artists, the glamour of the Paris world’s fair, and the spiritual debates among London’s occult circles are all handled with skill. When I finished Wild Talent I felt that I’d paid a visit to the late 19th century, that I’d been right there with Jeannie all along.

Also well-handled were the questions of what is “real” and what is not. The book is teeming with the supernatural — some of it real, some of it staged by charlatans, some of it in that gray area of uncertainty where the reader isn’t sure whether it’s real or a dream.

There’s a spot toward the middle of the book that was rough going in a way, and ironically, it’s because of something Kernaghan did very, very well. As the reader, I was feeling a little adrift and not sure whether the story was moving, and then a little light bulb went on over my head and I realized it was because Jeannie felt adrift and wasn’t sure whether she was getting anywhere. Alone in London, with her fondest dream postponed for the sake of day-to-day survival, Jeannie is understandably depressed. Kernaghan’s portrayal of Jeannie’s depression is true to life and really made me feel for the character.

The ending leaves open [Spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] the question of whether Jeannie achieves her goal of becoming a writer — but as I remembered her musings at the beginning of the book about the power of words, I realized that the novel’s text itself was meant to be the answer. [END spoiler] Well played.

Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural — (2009) Young adult. Publisher: Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural is the strange tale of Jeannie Guthrie, a sixteen-year-old Scottish farm worker, who possesses a frightening talent. Believing that she has unintentionally killed her ne’er-do-well cousin, her fear of being sentenced as a witch propels her to flee her home to London. There, Guthrie is befriended by the free-spirited and adventurous Alexandra David, and introduced to Madame Helena Blavatsky’s famous salon where she begins to understand the source of her strange powers. With detailed action sequences Kernaghan engages her readers as Jeannie and Alexandra venture from the late Victorian world of spiritualists and theosophists; to the fin de siecle Paris of burgeoning artists, anarchists and esoteric cults; and finally to the perilous country of the Beyond. It is against these eerie late 19th century backdrops that Kernaghan weaves an accessible tale of myth and magic, while at the same time addressing the serious and relevant issues of trust, conviction, and power.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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