After a harrowing stay at Bethlem Asylum, Clara is thrust back into the life of a sophisticated English woman of the 1870s. She moves to Durham with her husband Henry, a poor but up-and-coming professor of mathematics. Constantly plagued with visions of torturous therapies practiced in Bethlem, Clara struggles to regain the position in society she is expected to fill. Throughout the action of The Savage Instinct by M. M. DeLuca, Clara must navigate a world in which she has no power. Alienated from her family with a deceiving, gold-digging husband who constantly holds the threat of confinement over her head like a swinging noose, Clara finds solace and guidance in the most unlikely of mentors: Britain’s first female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton.
Sometimes I find myself in a nightmare where I want to scream at the top of my lungs, but no sound comes out. I can feel the tension building behind my vocal cords of anguish, without the relief that comes with the wail. I want to run away but my steps are so much heavier than I can bear. I run through a thick quicksand, a muck which I cannot fight against. Completely powerless. The dark mixture of frustration rises like bile in my throat as it gets harder and harder to breathe. The Savage Instinct is this nightmare for Clara and reading this felt like a vice grip on my throat that was slowly getting tighter and tighter.
M.M. DeLuca crafts expert imagery with her words; you can hear the shrieking women in the asylum, you can feel the fear when Clara is cornered, and you can smell the alcohol on the breath of her husband. The depictions of methods used on hysterical women will make your stomach turn. DeLuca’s thriller is like boiling a lobster; the pot gets hotter and hotter while you weren’t watching till it is boiling over in the final act where the tension is high and keeps the pages turning. Playing with the timeline helps build dramatic tension, but never lets enough out of the bag to ruin the journey. My only qualm was that after there was such a slow tantalizing build to our climax, there was little to no denouement and I found the final moments less satisfying.
The Savage Instinct fictionalizes the not-so-fictional Mary Ann Cotton, who nowadays lives on as a morbid nursery rhyme. Mary Ann Cotton, who was tried for poisoning her husbands and children, gives power and comfort to Clara. The two women are used to frame one another; each one fighting for their freedom in a world where men pull all of the strings. I thought the depiction of Cotton was strong, and DeLuca delves into the structure of her trial, which has the reader asking less about whether Cotton is innocent and more about how the judicial system failed her.
The Savage Instinct follows Clara’s descent into clarity, as the men around her claim her madness. The horror is rooted in fact, which is unrelenting. Clara is caught in a devil’s snare that we, the reader, are encapsulated in as well.
Rating 8 out of 10 Hangman’s Nooses