Ursula Pflug's Reviews > Wild Talent: A Novel of the Supernatural

Wild Talent by Eileen Kernaghan
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May 17, 2009

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This review appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction in April, 2008.

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WILD TALENT: A Novel of the Supernatural
By Eileen Kernaghan

Thistledown Press
ISBN: 978-1897235-40-9
$15.95
224 pp
Ages 14++

Review by Ursula Pflug

498 words

Acclaimed Canadian author Eileen Kernaghan’s new young adult novel opens in Scotland, where protagonist Jeannie Guthrie is working as a farm labourer. Wild Talent follows Jeannie as she flees to London after she may or may not have accidentally murdered her lecherous cousin George. In the big city Jeannie is quickly taken in hand by Alexandra David, an independently minded young Frenchwoman who finds her work with Madame Helena Blavatsky. Kernaghan, author of previous novels including the award-winning The Snow Queen is known both for her painstaking historical research and her interest in diverse cultural and historical manifestations of spirituality. Wild Talent is no exception.

The infamous mystic holds salons during which she impresses the faithful and the curious with magical parlour tricks including the manifestation of flowers, scents, and mysterious messages and objects. Kernaghan presents Blavatsky as a likeable if crotchety sort, ambitiously working on a voluminous study of the esoteric sciences while battling illness. She is also drawn as the ultimate self-mythologizer, and whether or not she is entirely a fraud: who knows? The jury’s still out on that one, but we are given to believe that at least some of her powers were real.

The climax is a harrowing scene in which Alexandra and Jeannie get literally lost inside a painting at a Paris salon. Magic presented in fantasy novels does not generally pose the question: are such things possible? But because Kernaghan’s book is research based, we feel she is being sly. It is after all not only Blavatsky but many of her period who believed that psycho-kinesis, clairvoyance and all manner of visitations were possible. And, as Wild Talent makes patently clear, they were people very much like us who lived only a century ago.

As it turns out, Jeannie herself is possessed of a wild talent. She must learn to control her power, to use it for good and to not allow others to manipulate her into using it for their gain. This is the thrust of the action packed novel, and Jeannie Guthrie is realistically drawn as she struggles with these issues. As well, her delight in coming across someone as generous, intelligent and like-minded as Alexandra is both palpable and timeless, one young people experience today as ever when they set off alone with little more than faith in themselves and a beneficent cosmos.

Which comes to the real surprise. In her end notes Kernaghan tells us that, while the red-headed and hot-tempered young Guthrie is an invention, David was real. A quick internet search supplies astonishing photographs of this brilliant young adventurer. Many of the famous names of the fin de siecle who appear in Wild Talent as cameos remain in common parlance, including Oscar Wilde and the poets W.B. Yeats and Paul Verlaine, but few have heard of Alexandra David, who actually lived in a Himalayan cave for two years. Kudos to Kernaghan for unearthing a fiercely free-spirited woman whose life is perhaps even stranger than fantasy fiction.
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Ursula Pflug The following review ran in The Peterborough Examiner and was reprinted in the April 2009 New York Review of Science Fiction.

WILD TALENT: A Novel of the Supernatural
By Eileen Kernaghan

Thistledown Press
ISBN: 978-1897235-40-9
$15.95
224 pp
Ages 14++

Review by Ursula Pflug

498 words

Acclaimed Canadian author Eileen Kernaghan’s new young adult novel opens in Scotland, where protagonist Jeannie Guthrie is working as a farm labourer. Wild Talent follows Jeannie as she flees to London after she may or may not have accidentally murdered her lecherous cousin George. In the big city Jeannie is quickly taken in hand by Alexandra David, an independently minded young Frenchwoman who finds her work with Madame Helena Blavatsky. Kernaghan, author of previous novels including the award-winning The Snow Queen is known both for her painstaking historical research and her interest in diverse cultural and historical manifestations of spirituality. Wild Talent is no exception.

The infamous mystic holds salons during which she impresses the faithful and the curious with magical parlour tricks including the manifestation of flowers, scents, and mysterious messages and objects. Kernaghan presents Blavatsky as a likeable if crotchety sort, ambitiously working on a voluminous study of the esoteric sciences while battling illness. She is also drawn as the ultimate self-mythologizer, and whether or not she is entirely a fraud: who knows? The jury’s still out on that one, but we are given to believe that at least some of her powers were real.

The climax is a harrowing scene in which Alexandra and Jeannie get literally lost inside a painting at a Paris salon. Magic presented in fantasy novels does not generally pose the question: are such things possible? But because Kernaghan’s book is research based, we feel she is being sly. It is after all not only Blavatsky but many of her period who believed that psycho-kinesis, clairvoyance and all manner of visitations were possible. And, as Wild Talent makes patently clear, they were people very much like us who lived only a century ago.

As it turns out, Jeannie herself is possessed of a wild talent. She must learn to control her power, to use it for good and to not allow others to manipulate her into using it for their gain. This is the thrust of the action packed novel, and Jeannie Guthrie is realistically drawn as she struggles with these issues. As well, her delight in coming across someone as generous, intelligent and like-minded as Alexandra is both palpable and timeless, one young people experience today as ever when they set off alone with little more than faith in themselves and a beneficent cosmos.

Which comes to the real surprise. In her end notes Kernaghan tells us that, while the red-headed and hot-tempered young Guthrie is an invention, David was real. A quick internet search supplies astonishing photographs of this brilliant young adventurer. Many of the famous names of the fin de siecle who appear in Wild Talent as cameos remain in common parlance, including Oscar Wilde and the poets W.B. Yeats and Paul Verlaine, but few have heard of Alexandra David, who actually lived in a Himalayan cave for two years. Kudos to Kernaghan for unearthing a fiercely free-spirited woman whose life is perhaps even stranger than fantasy fiction.




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