Clare Dudman was born in north Wales and now lives in Chester with her husband and teenage son (the other son having recently flown the nest). She has been a research and development scientist in academia and industry, a teacher, a tutor and a lecturer in chemistry and in creative writing. In 1995 her novel for children Edge of Danger won the Kathleen Fidler award, and in 2001 she won an Arts Council of England's Writers' Award. This was for an extract from her novel Wegener's Jigsaw (US title: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead), which is based on the life of Alfred Wegener and necessitated an alarming trip to a remote area of north-west Greenland as part of the research. Clare's second novel for adults is 98 Reasons for Being, which is based on the life and work of a revolutionary early psychiatrist in Frankfurt. For this book she studied leeches at close quarters. Below, Clare discusses Jill Dawson's Wild Boy.
Clare Dudman on Wild Boy by Jill Dawson
Autism in fiction and film tends to be depicted in a romantic fashion. The child (and it usually is a child) tends to have some extraordinary skill: for instance, he might be able to add up long series of numbers in his head, or draw detailed pictures of landscape after seeing it just once, or perhaps tell you the score and date of every game Manchester United has played in its entire history. He is intelligent but remote - almost ordinary but not quite, an outsider then - able to observe and then articulate his interpretation of the non-autistic world outside.
But these cases, although they exist, are quite rare. Many autistic children, like my nephew, have no obvious skill. They are obsessive, frustrated and difficult to control - and the autistic child in Jill Dawson's novel Wild Boy is like this. This child, who is called Victor, is almost mute, doesn't look you in the eye and is often so wild he seems to be barely human.
Humanity is important in this book because Wild Boy is based on the true story of a feral child who appeared from the woods near St Sernin in post-revolutionary France. Memories of the recent Terror are still fresh and there is a feeling of unease and distrust - a friend can so easily become an enemy - pervading the book. There is another insecurity also, one that is more philosophical - a questioning of some of the viewpoints of the recent Enlightenment era - and this is brought to the fore with one of the voices in the book: the doctor, Itard.
The story, which has an interesting and adventurous construction, consists of two first-person narratives - Dr Itard's and Madame Guerin's (she is the child's hired and affectionate carer) - and a third-person narrative which is mainly in the form of flashbacks and deals with the boy's early history. Victor has been brought up by wolves. There are local stories of his being suckled by them, of his living with them and almost becoming one of them - and the third-person narrative tells this story with a delicate touch. This precarious existence is brought to an end when he is spied in a village, captured and sent to the institute for the deaf in Paris. Here he encounters the ambitious Dr Itard who views the child as an 'extraordinary opportunity that has walked out of the forest and into my life'. This is where the story starts. Dr Itard is determined to make his name by teaching Victor to talk.
Each voice is convincing. They are undivided on the page except by a single line gap and it is an indication of the quality of the writing that this is quite enough. The voices are so different that there is never any confusion. Each time I encountered a new voice I found myself immersed immediately.
Gradually Victor is tamed by the care of these two different people. The story is clear, sound, realistic: the miracles are small and believable. The autistic behaviour is well-observed and the depth of research obvious. Paris of that era is evocatively drawn: from the stench from the Seine to the aspirations of its damaged citizens. This novel has a lot to say about the tragedy of that time and the aftermath of revolution. There is a sense of waiting for what will come next and a sense of dislocation, which comes from the end of an era. There are moments that catch you without warning with their poignancy, and there are revelations that are unexpected and carry you along. It describes human behaviour at its worst and yet it never feels bleak or desperate.
At the end of Wild Boy I felt I understood what it must be like to be a child like Victor or my nephew, and it is not as hopeless and frustrating as I thought. There are moments of pleasure and understanding, which makes me realize that the future for my nephew could be, as it was for Victor, just as rewarding as it is for those of us born more tame.