Published by Knopf Publishing Group on February 14, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
On the Savage Side by Tiffany McDaniel is not for the faint of heart. Set in an Ohio small town and inspired by the real-life unsolved murders of six women known as the Chillicothe Six, On the Savage Side explores how heroin addiction can rip apart a family and a community and how predators are lurking everywhere, just waiting to snatch up the pieces. It’s both a disturbing and haunting story, probably one of the darkest I’ve ever read.
The story follows Arcade and Daffodil (Arc and Daffy), twin sisters who are born to heroin-addicted parents. As their parents struggle with their addiction, life is pretty rough for the family, and when their dad dies from an overdose when the girls are six years old, things go from bad to worse. The one bright spot in their lives is their beloved grandmother, Mamaw Milkweed, who showers the girls with love and affection and teaches them the lesson that life has both a savage side and a beautiful side and that the key to life is to make the savage side beautiful. Mamaw Milkweed uses the underside of a crochet square she is working on to illustrate her point, tidying up the dangling strings to make both sides of the square beautiful. Arc and Daffy take this message to heart, and using their vivid imaginations, they try to find the beautiful side of every savage thing they witness in their young lives. Some of the loveliest moments of the book are those scenes between the girls and their grandmother, and those moments where the girls are weaving together imaginative stories to try to make life seem a little less horrific.
McDaniel makes it so easy to fall in love with Arc and Daffy and to mourn the loss of their innocence as their mother sinks further and further into her addiction with each passing year, even turning to prostitution to help pay for drugs. It’s absolutely heartbreaking when the girls start to follow in their mother’s footsteps, both in terms of drug use and prostitution. When a serial killer starts dumping the bodies of young women into the local river, the story takes on an even more ominous tone. I loved that Arc makes a vow to keep her sister safe – their bond is another one of the beautiful moments in the book – but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel like the odds were stacked against them, especially when their town is filled with predatory, sadistic men, any of whom seemed like a likely suspect, and no one in the town seemed all that invested in finding out who the killer is.
The story is filled with twists and turns and I don’t want to give any of those away, so I’m going to pivot from the plot to talk about the writing. This may be one of the darkest stories I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most beautifully written. I loved the balance between the beautiful and the ugly moments of the story, and found McDaniel’s storytelling to be truly captivating and downright poetic at times. In particular, there are several chapters sprinkled throughout where the river itself becomes a character in the story, describing the women’s bodies as they are dumped into the water.
Filled with just about every trigger warning imaginable, from drug abuse and sexual abuse all the way to animal cruelty, On the Savage Side won’t be for everyone. But if you like a haunting and emotional read that takes a raw and unflinching look at a dark subject matter, On the Savage Side is a must-read. I know it’s a book I won’t be forgetting about anytime soon.