BOOK REVIEW / Shopping malls meet tulgy woods: 'Second Nature' - Alice Hoffman: Macmillan, 14.99 pounds

ALICE HOFFMAN doesn't immediately strike you as a serious writer. There is the winsome face peeping beneath its mushroom hat. There are the pastel covers, the syrupy praise ('I'll re-read her when I can stand the joy'), the advance warning of lyricism, romance and magic. Then there is the book, which soothes the most savage breast.

A wounded 'Wolf Man' has been found by trappers and transported to St Joseph's hospital where, feral and silent, he is diagnosed as mad and due to be institutionalised for life by the resident psychiatrist, Stuart. Stuart's sister, Robin, is the first person to touch the Wolf Man in kindness. He speaks, begging for help, and Robin promptly spirits him away to the house she shares with her teenage son Connor. They live on an island once owned by her grandfather, Old Dick. Here she teaches the Wolf Man how to read, eat, garden and make love.

Like every wild child, our hero has to learn how to pass for a 'civilised' man in the island's gossipy community, but it is civilisation itself that comes under scrutiny. Gradually, he remembers that his name is Stephen, and that, as a three-year-old, he was the sole survivor of an aeroplane crash in Michigan, rescued, suckled and raised by a she-wolf. Cooked food burns his mouth; he can run faster than a car and kill with a single blow. Yet his gentleness is such that he will not even kill snails. He is the only person who can make Robin's dying grandfather, yearning for his own lost youth, happy. When Stuart returns to the island on the verge of a nervous breakdown after losing his prize patient, Stephen accomplishes what Prozac cannot. But as Stephen's savage nature becomes known, a spate of mysterious deaths on the island escalate into murder.

To update The Jungle Book takes some nerve, but Hoffman breaks the heart even as she makes you laugh. Robin believes that once Stephen can read and write he can decide his own fate, but Stephen wants to find his way back to the wild, and distrusts language. In place of Kipling's marvellous verbosity we have Stephen's wordless brotherhood with the pack, described with a vivid simplicity that carries utter conviction. Our ambivalent response to the wolf - simultaneously our ultimate image of savagery and a far more social creature than mankind - is beautifully encapsulated when the island's murderer is unmasked:

'Men think about right and wrong, they have to debate it, discuss it, draw upon possibilities and statistics, laws and codes. Wolves have to know. They have to know in an instant, pure instinct, not thought, because they can never be wrong. If they're wrong, the ice they walk upon cracks, and they drown . . . . If they're wrong, their brothers and sisters starve and their pups are shot as they run. If they're wrong, the rabid wolf comes back . . . .'

No amount of beauty, natural intelligence, gentleness or love can save Stephen. Crucified both by his own incompatible longings to return to the wild and by his passion for Robin, he cannot enjoy the freedom - like Mowgli or Tarzan - of being both in and out of his brave new world. The choice he makes rends the island.

Perhaps because she is pretty, female and a storyteller Hoffman has been sneeringly cast by many critics in this country as a feel-good novelist. There are probably not enough of these around anyway, but her earlier novels - about incest, bereavement, alcoholism, and the death of a child from AIDS - scarcely fall into this category. She occupies a territory where shopping malls meet tulgy woods, angels haunt trees, divorcees can find love, and evil is a kind of sickness. It exists somewhere between Updike, Angela Carter and the pre-Schindler Spielberg. If she describes the wonders of love, children and starlit nights with voluptuous magic realism, each of her ten novels also examines the intolerable tension between individuals and their community. Her narrative pace is Hollywood-orientated, and increasingly predictable, but her imagination is not. Hoffman shows how the pursuit of happiness can go wrong with a lethal grace that marks her as a novelist of real stature.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us