a review: Untamed by Anna Cowan


I have been re-reading books from 2013 lately. They are just close enough for me to be able to read them quickly yet distant enough to again be enjoyable. Some I like better the second time around; some less.

Untamed is a book I enjoyed less but still remain impressed by. Ms. Cowan’s book is fearless, interesting, and stands out for its implacable faith in its story.

Here’s the review I wrote for Dear Author. Though I now would give the book a B, it’s still one I recommend.

Dear Ms. Cowan:
Before I began this book, I read a scathingly negative review by another reviewer. Here at Dear Author, Janine and I have different opinions about Untamed. The novel is a book many will either love or hate.
I loved it. It’s one of the most mesmerizing books I’ve read this year. It’s not perfect and yet I won’t be surprised if, come January, it’s on many a list as 2013′s best debut.
The book begins with the hero, the Duke of Darlington, sipping coffee and perusing silk handkerchiefs in the box window at Whites. In barrels a mammoth of a man, the Earl of BenRuin, seething with rage. BenRuin’s wife, Lydia, is one of Darlington’s lovers. BenRuin is stopped from slitting Darlington’s throat–he breaks a chair instead–and he leaves after telling Darlington that if he touches Lydia again, BenRuin will indeed kill him.
Lydia is at home, taking tea with her sister Kit who has recently come to London to have a belated (she’s 28) season.
‘I do wish you would leave the servants alone,’ said Lydia, Countess of BenRuin, graciously accepting a cup of tea from the footman. She and Kit sat in the upstairs parlour, squares of sunlight fat and warm on the carpet. ‘It makes them so uncomfortable.’
And your house and your friends and this fine dress make me uncomfortable. ‘Yes, my lady.’
Lydia, of the white-blonde hair and perfect figure, looked at Kit like she was a rat who had crept in and sat down for tea. Not scared of rats, Lydia, just deeply disdainful. ‘You only need to call me that in public,’ she said. ‘Lydia will do in private. I grow tired of telling you.’
‘Of course. Lydia.’
‘I suppose “sister” would be too much to manage.’
Kit resisted the urge to throw her hands up at her – a dreadful, base gesture. ‘We’ve not had cause to call each other sister these thirteen years, but the habit could be learned, if you wish it.’
Something interrupted Lydia’s smooth expression, then was gone. ‘Just a passing fancy,’ she said, her vowels as round as a line of marbles. Bored marbles. ‘Is the tea not to your taste? Fetch a new pot,’ she said to the footman. ‘And be sure it is hot when it arrives.’
You wouldn’t know by listening to them, Kit thought, that she was older than Lydia by seven years. The instant you laid eyes on them you’d not be confused, though. The fresh, fair-skinned Countess and her dark hobgoblin sister. Although perhaps she was too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree.
BenRuin, a man deeply in love with a wife who seems not to care a whit for him, storms into the parlor.
The Earl fell to his knees before her sister, and though standing he was too large, too much for Kit, seeing him brought so low was awful.
‘I almost killed a man today,’ he said, his hands reaching for Lydia and finding no place they would be welcome. ‘I swear to you, I would have put my knife in his throat. Do not drive me further than this.’
Kit looked at her rough hands. Here was the part that was not so easy. She had given everything so that Lydia could marry well.
Lord BenRuin stood, as though he could no longer bear to be near his wife. ‘Do not see him again,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, do not see him again.’
That night, Kit goes to a ball and, as she always does in these social situations, slouches against a wall and thinks about her life at home, a place where she works hard–her family, the Sutherlands, are one step away from impoverished–but can be her true self. As she thinks about the pigs that need to be slaughtered, she listens to the way the ton talks about her sister and realizes Lydia’s affair with Darlington, the most scandalous man in town, is destroying Lydia’s reputation. Kit decides to make her business to end her sister’s liaison. When Darlington arrives at the ball, Kit sees him but before she can seek him out, the most beautiful man she’s ever seen strikes up a conversation with her. Their interchange is charged with the promise of emotional intimacy and, after he walks away from her, Kit feels that “something in her has been touched.” She goes and warns off Darlington who cheerfully tells her he and Lydia have “parted ways.” Darlington seems nothing like his reputation and Kit is bemused.
She wanders away from the social crush and follows the sound of a piano being played. As she stands on the edge of the room, she sees it’s the man she spoke with playing. Before she can speak to him, the hostess of the ball, the very married Lady Marmotte strolls in. As Kit watches the man, who Kit realizes is Darlington, begins to make love to Lady Marmotte. Kit is horrified to see the look on the Duke’s face.
…he was not engaged at all. He did not feel passion. His expression was calculated. His smiles, his voice, were deliberate. He used his body with as much dispassionate skill as the carpenter at Millcross used his lathe. He pushed her further back still, and then he leaned forward and licked her breasts, first one then the other. Methodical, contained.
The next day, Kit encounters Darlington while she is out with Lydia in the park. She asks him to leave Lydia alone. He agrees with the condition that Kit leave London, return home, and take him with her. She agrees despite being warned by BenRuin that if Darlington lays a finger on her, he’ll destroy the man. When the Duke’s carriage arrives to take Kit and Darlington back to the Manor (Kit’s name for her home), Darlington again shocks Kit.
…she was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile – the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck.
The woman turned away from the window and the Duke’s difficult blue eyes laughed out of her face.
What happens from here is complicated, routinely unexpected, and, depending on your perspective, either miraculous or mendacious. The Duke, whose name is Jude, settles into life at the Manor with Kit, her hazy mother, her beta brother, and their one servant Liza. Jude manipulates everyone–only Kit knows he’s a man–into living the lives he sees for them. In the time that the Duke takes over the Manor everyone changes, everything changes. Jude controls everyone but Kit. And it is that relationship with its every shifting power structure that makes this novel so extraordinary.
Let me say I don’t give a damn about this book’s sexual politics. Or rather I don’t give a damn about whetherUntamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s not that I don’t care about the cultural conundrums we ineptly struggle with as we try to define what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in 2013. But when I was reading this book, I was transported. It simply didn’t occur to me to analyze and parse. I just wanted to read.
The majority of this book details the time Jude and Kit spend living together at the Manor. Jude is a volatile chimera, shifting from entrancing to almost evil. Kit is, like so many of my favorite women in fiction, often unlikable. Their relationship is in every aspect–emotional, sexual, and social–constantly mutating. As I turned the pages, steadfastly ignoring the responsibilities of my life, I was, over and over again, surprised but never discomfited by their behavior. Together they are fascinating, sensual, and, in the way that great story-telling often is, fabulously unlikely.
The final chapters of Untamed don’t match the brilliance of the rest of the book. When Kit and Jude return to London–Jude is facing social and financial destruction, all of which has been engineered by a very pissed-off Lady Marmotte–the story falters. Kit and Jude become unlikely in ways that don’t work. The society they best is one that even I, who rarely cares about historical accuracy, found jarringly dubious. Had it not been for the deft and moving portrayal of Lydia’s and BenRuin’s relationship, I’d have felt bereft as I finished the novel.
Untamed is flawed. When, days later, I awoke from its spell, I became aware of its missteps. The novel is rather like an improved Icarus, that fabled dreamer whom Kit invokes near the end of the book’s, a literary “lunatic glory.”
Untamed falls short of its ambitions. But even as I contemplate its failings, I’m ready to read it again. It gets B+ from me.

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