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 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. Well played.