Fierce People by Dirk Wittenborn

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Fierce People by Dirk Wittenborn

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: A teenage boy, disappointed at being unable to visit his anthropologist father who documents a fierce jungle tribe, moves with his troubled mother to the country under the patronage of a very wealthy man. He discovers that the rich people in his community are also a fierce tribe. Some fine writing and witty observations is let down by characters curiously under-realised, despite much talk of psychology. Nevertheless, an amusing and engaging potboiler.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747598817

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The Fierce People are in New Jersey - the premise of this novel - although most of the rich turn out to be really rather nice. Maybe Americans aren't as talented at snobbery as their European cousins...

Having found the first few chapters of Fierce People very well written and engrossing, I was eventually a little disappointed in its characterisation and plot. Dirk Wittenborn is a talented writer, but when your novel's cover has a quote comparing it to The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, it does rather raise readers' expectations. However, as a lively, enjoyable read, it has a lot to offer.

Fierce People begins with the lucidly drawn relationship between precocious teen Finn and his mother Liz, a flaky masseuse with a drug habit. Finn wants to visit his father (whom he has never met), and research the Fierce People – Yanomami Indians of the Amazon, known for their belligerence. Pressure from relatives, and an unfortunate encounter with the police, lead the pair to flee the city under the patronage of one of Liz's rich clients, Ogden Osborne, who lives in, and essentially pulls the strings of, the wealthy, fictional community of Vlyvalle. Here, Finn discovers that laws that caused his own flight to the country, don't seem to apply to the drippingly rich residents of their new home, even to the point of arson and murder.

The writing is of a high standard, and Wittenborn weaves in many interesting observations and insights gleaned from his own experience growing up as poor (the son of a psychologist) in a very wealthy community – eg Hawaiians is a code for Jews. The plot progresses quickly, and Finn begins a flirtation with Maya, granddaughter of his mother's patron, and a friendship with the patriarch himself. However, Finn doesn't realise that his social success is putting him in mortal danger…

The promising, pacy plotting at the beginning goes a little muddy in the middle, and implausibility and plot-holes creep in. Could a teen, even if in love, really go dancing in new shoes after a few days earlier, getting his foot caught in a man-trap? Could an elderly man really perform successful CPR on a frozen body with a hockey stick? I also felt that there was something inauthentic about the characters – people's personalities seemed to change to suit the plot, rather than the other way around. I found myself eventually comparing this more to Judith Krantz's Scruples than F Scott Fitzgerald. Finn is amoral at the beginning of the book, and he's amoral at the end. Was I wrong to expect his brush with decadence to change him, or unnerve the reader?

I don't want to be overly-critical – I did enjoy it, it was a fun read, but it doesn't live up to its early chapters, and I found the ending a little too pat. Perhaps my own prejudices about how the rich are different got in the way of my enjoyment! I liked the scenes with Osborne – who likes to change things – but again, they didn't always ring true.

For an absorbing read on a train or beach, Fierce People is a good choice – you'll gain some insights into the truly rich, but you may have to shut up and listen to the story as children are told when questioning the implausible.

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending Fierce People to Bookbag.

For further reading, a non-fiction take on the lives of the very wealthy is found in Richi$tan: A Journey Through the 21st Century Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank. In fiction we think you might enjoy Portobello by Ruth Rendell. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig rather spoilt me for Fierce People, as its insights on the effects of wealth are profound, fully-realised and shocking, compared with Finn's relatively ready acceptance into the land of the rich. Written in the 1930s, it makes an interesting contrast to the above novel.

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