A woman therapist is called by neighbors to coax a wild girl down from a tree. As the woman sits beneath the tree, waiting for the girl to descend, she glimpses a white wolf, shimmering and transparent, behind or within the girl. Gradually the woman accepts a vision that hints at a new level of spiritual understanding if she accepts the girl on her own terms instead of trying arrogantly to “heal” her.
Finally the girl, who names herself Azul, comes down from the tree, and the woman takes her in, providing her with a bed, food, privacy, and a humble, waiting presence. What follows is an account of a struggle between woman and girl, and between the woman’s own desire for transformation and her stubborn grip on her safe identity as the older, wiser, member of the pair, the healer. Feral is an amalgamation of novel and spiritual guide. It seems to be calling us to accept and celebrate the animal in our own natures, to be willing to strip away civilization (clothes, houses, manners) in order to connect with powers of empathy, sharpened perception, telepathy, and dream. Similarly, the reader is invited to let go of skepticism and demands for convention in plot, dialogue, or characterization in order to experience this book.
Although the woman (the girl calls her Owl Woman) lives in an isolated house at the edge of a park, she has lost touch with the wild outdoors she loved as a child. Owl Woman owns a pet wolf that roams free, but she herself prefers the safety of her home. She treats clients from the distance of her professional demeanor and psychological theory, trying to make them well. She had a lover who disappears when the girl appears, and who is never characterized; we learn nothing of her other clients; she goes out into the world from time to time, but we never know what she does there.
What we learn is that Owl Woman has to give up everything—wolf, certainty, healer’s role, dignity, safety, home, even the comfort of words and rational thought—to accompany the suffering girl on her journey.
In one sense, Azul is like an unpredictable guru of Tibetan Buddhism, like Marpa tormenting Milarepa with rages and unreasonable demands as Milarepa strives for wisdom. But there is the difference that the girl is suffering also, tortured by bad dreams and the weight of animal suffering in the world. Thus the two characters seesaw between roles, with power, need, kindness, and pain taking residence first in one, then in the other.
The fact that full appreciation of this book requires suspension not only of belief but of rational skepticism may prove too harsh a demand for many readers.
The girl Azul never becomes real as a character, much less sympathetic. She sleeps naked outside but drives a car to town. She has no history or possessions, but she creates amazing works of art. She reads minds and pronounces judgments but cries out in nightmares. Her age is indeterminate and changes. She may be a nature spirit or she may be a difficult teenager. At times the reader will want to call on Owl Woman to stop groveling to the wild girl.
One reason Feral gets away with slapping its characters and readers around so unrelentingly is the elegance of its writing. It is vital for a book making an argument about the enlightening power of the wild to be sharp and lovely in its descriptions of nature, and here Ms. Metzger delivers wonderfully. She describes the girl as “transparent in the way a wave curving up for ten feet can appear transparent when it turns ice blue as the light penetrates it, the same color as secret caverns in banks of new fallen snow startled awake by sunlight.”
Again and again, the reader will feel “startled awake” by the freshness of Metzger’s prose. In the end, it is the brightness of Feral’s images, not the cogency of its argument, that will linger with the reader.