Anna Cowan’s debut novel Untamed is incredibly ambitious and polarizing. People seem to either love it or loathe it–there’s not a lot of middle ground.
I’m going to come right out and say that I’m in the love it category–but more, I think, for what Cowan was trying to accomplish and for the attempt than for the execution.
Cowan is a writer to watch. She has an amazing way with words and I found myself caught up in and having to unravel her prose to get at the meaning more than once (for some people this is a bug–for me, it’s a feature). My review copy (kindly provided to me by the publisher) is full of highlights and if it were a physical copy, it would likely be dog-eared and bristling with sticky notes and marginalia as well. It’s that kind of book.
Kit Sutherland is the spinster sister of a countess and the grand daughter of an earl. She is unattractive, with coarse hair and a broken nose and fingers that never healed correctly. When the book starts, she is in London going to yet another ball with her sister–who doesn’t seem to like her very much. Kit would father be back at the family home in Millcross, working to keep things going there.
While at the ball, she meets a man who turns out to be the Duke of Darlington. She’s horribly rude to him and later sees him fucking their hostess, Lady Marmotte, in the music room. Darlington’s also having an affair with her sister and her desire to save her sister’s new marriage is what drives her to make a deal with Darlington.
And that’s where things get interesting. Because at this point, Darlington starts dressing and living as a woman. And for me, it didn’t feel like he was just a man putting on a dress, it felt like an actual expression of an integral part of who he was–he felt genderqueer to me (even though I know that in the time of the novel, gender and sexual orientations were seen very differently than they are today). As Lady Rose, Darlington is able to put aside the social expectations and contraints on him as a duke and he’s able to deal with Kit and her family on a more level playing field. In many ways, he’s more comfortable as Lady Rose than he is as Darlington. I found him to be a fascinating character.
I also found Kit fascinating. She doesn’t care about dresses or other social niceties. She is pragmatic and tough and when she sets herself a goal, she does what she has to achieve it.
My favorite moments in this book were the private ones between Kit and Jude, watching them both struggle towards each other. Watching them confide in each other and develop an easy camaraderie. Watching Kit pit herself against Lady Marmotte and knowing that her greatest strength is in the way everyone underestimates her. Kit never underestimates herself.
Cowan’s prose is much like Kit and Jude themselves–you have to feel around the edges of it and try to find a way to split it open and to give yourself up to the book fully and in a way that, I think, doesn’t work for many readers. Kit is not a placeholder heroine, not at all–and I think trying to read this book with her as a placeholder is going to be unsuccessful. Kit and Jude are difficult characters and this book makes you work to believe in them and for me, that is work that is worthwhile.
Not only is this a book about the relationship between Kit and Jude, but also a book about the Sutherland family and how it has been broken many times over: first when Sophie married Abe Sutherland but also when Abe set Lydia apart from her siblings, when he sent Tom away, when he literally broke Kit–Kit who has been fighting her whole life to keep her family together. The Sutherlands were broken further when Abe repeatedly lost everything gambling, when he sold Lydia into marriage, when he gave Kit no choice but to mortgage the family home. Jude is, interestingly enough, a catalyst for familial reconciliation and healing–between Sophie and her estranged family of birth, between Kit and her siblings. And not only does Jude help the Sutherlands to reconcile to each other, he also reconciles them to society as a whole. He is, quite literally, a civilizing influence.
As for flaws–I had problems with some of the POV shifts, but I honestly think that had to do more with the formatting on my eARC than anything else (there seemed to be a real lack of section breaks within each chapter). I also would have preferred to have a better idea of the characters’ backstory closer to the beginning of the book instead of it being doled out in dribs and drabs throughout the text–especially in terms of the rocky relationship between Kit and her sister as well as the relationship between Lydia and her husband.
Finally, I know there are historical inaccuracies in this book (specifically around the Corn Laws and divorce). Honestly, I don’t care. I often read historical romances as a particular type of speculative fiction, so deviations from what actually happened or how things worked tend to not bother me. I know they bother other people, but for me that’s not a deal-breaker. I don’t read romance novels in order to learn history and in fiction, sometimes history must bend in service to the story.
This is a modern story written for modern readers–our conceptions of gender roles and sexual orientations are, as I’ve said previously, very different now than they were at the time of the book (example: heterosexual wasn’t even a word until 1868 or thereabouts) and, in may ways, the past is a place we can never know completely. We can, at best, speculate.
I’ve talked a lot here and in other places about wanting to read romance novels that push at the edges of the genre and Untamed absolutely does that. Cowan’s doing a bit more than pushing–she’s actively breaking down the walls and I, for one, cannot wait to see what she finds on the other side.