England, 1873. Clara Blackstone has just been released after one year in a private asylum for the insane. Clara has two goals: to reunite with her husband, Henry, and to never—ever—return to the asylum. As she enters Durham, Clara finds her carriage surrounded by a mob gathered to witness the imprisonment of Mary Ann Cotton—England’s first female serial killer—accused of poisoning nearly twenty people, including her husbands and children.
Clara soon finds the oppressive confinement of her marriage no less terrifying than the white-tiled walls of Hoxton. And as she grows increasingly suspicious of Henry’s intentions, her fascination with Cotton grows. Soon, Cotton is not just a notorious figure from the headlines, but an unlikely confidante, mentor—and perhaps accomplice—in Clara’s struggle to protect her money, her freedom and her life.
***Thanks to NetGalley and Inkshares for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.
From what I can figure out, it looks like The Savage Instinct was originally self-published by DeLuca in 2015 and is being re-released by Inkshares. Now, I read this when the expected publishing date was March 16th but it looks like it’s been pushed to May. This just means you have time to let the anticipation build because this is a damn good book.
By no means an easy read, I was at times disgusted, terrified, uncomfortable, or anxious throughout the story. Sometimes these feelings came together in new and interesting ways for even more heightened emotions. No part of this book makes you happy to take a stroll down memory lane to revisit the expectations of women in the 1800s and the horrors brought down upon them when they did not meet these expectations.
As Clara joins her husband in Durham after stints in two asylums, both horrific in their own ways, she undergoes an awakening, thanks in part to her interactions with accused serial killer Mary Ann Cotton. Even before becoming aware of Clara’s experiences and more of her background, her husband Henry is an infuriating character. Weak and disagreeable, he seems a poor match for Clara, unable and unwilling to give her the support she needs to find her role in a new town, a new home, and her old marriage. It soon becomes clear that what appears to be clumsy, awkward attempts to help are actually hiding much darker motives.
The dynamic between Clara and Mary Ann is so incredibly interesting. The push and pull between them as they try to befriend each other – revealing and withholding secrets and personal information, not sure how much to trust each other – has left me still questioning truth vs fact. Even though they at first seem so different, they are both haunted women who have lived through terrible life events.
As the story continues, it evolves into a dark race against imprisonment. The memories of the asylum become more prominent, the news stories about Mary Ann’s accused crimes become more explicit, and the stakes start skyrocketing. The emotions are so palpable, Clara’s growing terror as her future starts to close in on her made me feel physically ill.
If nothing else, The Savage Instinct made me glad I’m alive now and not trying to survive as a woman in the 1800s. There’s still a lot that needs to change but at least I don’t need to worry about being committed to an asylum if I upset my husband. I would highly recommend this book if suspense and high stakes are your thing but prepare yourself for some graphic atrocities against women and explicit reports of the autopsies performed on Mary Ann’s victims (primarily her husbands and children).