Book Review: What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine

In the wood, the years pass like hours, the hours like centuries. Rabbit kits born at the start of long-lost springs maintain their downy ears, pinched noses. Young deer wobble for decades on matchstick legs, baby hedgehogs who have shed first sets of quill do not, for all their effort, grow into the next set. But the frozen girl ages: her breasts blooms, dark hair lengthens, cheekbones sharpen.

In a fierce and intricately imagined debut, Julia Fine creates a story that is part fairy tale part speculative feminist fiction. What Should Be Wild follows Maisie Cothay from infancy to young adulthood as she balances the unique terms of her existence: she has the ability to kill or resurrect with even the gentlest brush of her skin.

Forced into isolation for fear of what havoc she could accidentally wreak, Maisie is studied by her father, a struggling anthropologist, and spends the rest of her days suppressing the very thing that makes her special. Knowing no differently, Maisie grows up, mostly content with exploring the limited space within her family’s estate- that is until she ventures beyond the boundaries set by her father and into the world.

Still, I killed my father three times before the age of eight, and caused the demise of over a dozen small animals. We lived in my mother’s old family home in the country, far from out nearest human neighbor, but the forest around us was filled with wild beasts. I generally managed to avoid the larger—squirrels, rabbits, deer—yet found no way to spare gnats, midges and houseflies.

Even the plants could not resist me. This I learned early on, toddling barefooted outside our house, leaving a comet tail of crackling, yellowed grasses where there once had been lush green. Peter, in his odd, dreamy way, simply placed his gloved had in my chubby one and led me to retrace my steps, watching the color seep back into the landscape.

Littered among Maisie’s story are those of the women who came before her- the Blakely’s, thought to suffer from some mysterious curse or a repetitive series of tragic accidents leading to their disappearances. Going back as far as the year 603, each woman has the chance to tell her story, which, once all are told, come together to alleviate some of the uncertainty behind the Blakely family history while simultaneously adding depth and magic to the tale as a whole.

Across hundreds of years and hundreds of Blakelys, there have been six other women like Lucy, in need of the liminal love of the wood. Lucy looks at the others, that first day. The blink at her. The usual sounds of the forest—plaintive owls, scuttling wood mice, the papery screech and flutter of young bats—have been usurped by the lullaby of ancient temperate trees, a sentient quiet, a deep and subtle whisper. The gray evening has vanished, replaced by a pale sunlight that gilds each of Lucy’s companions. She watched these women, suspicious as they make their salutations—

Central to each woman’s existence, and where Maisie currently resides, is the Blakely family estate, Urizon, and the woods surrounding it. Pulsing with a preternatural aura and bursting with secrets, the woods draws the Blakely women in like a magnet- becoming for the ancestors a sort of limbo where they are held for some unknown reason. However, for Maisie, the woods hold a chance at rebirth and growth, if only she can find her way in and through its ever-changing flora and fauna.

The forest spools and gathers, holds its breath until evening. In the dark it protracts to take a fuller span of William Blakely’s masterpiece, Urizon, Helen’s home. Mary’s home. Emma’s and Lucy’s. The ivy moves quickest, sneaking in through the cracks in the stone, under the doors, forcing them wider. The roots of the yard oaks crack like cramped legs and extend themselves, sighing as they stretch against floorboards, popping them loose. Tree branches tap windows. Wild roses, sharp-edged and hideously sweet, thorn through and scent the parlors. The outside comes in. Centuries of stagnation have exploded into action; eternal life, an eternal inertia, releasing all the force it’s held at bay.

Maisie’s follows a labyrinthine path to uncover the secrets of Urizon and the Blakely women and what she uncovers helps to inform her inner emotional journey. Along the way she begins to understand the wrongs she has suffered as a result of her isolation and she is able to discover within herself the strength and femininity she has always possessed yet never knew how to manipulate.

But none of my success is its avoidance had ever been my own. My good behavior was the result not og my self-restraint but of a forced extraction, a choice thrust upon be before I was born. I obeyed not because I possessed a preternatural self-control, some internal fortitude, but because my basic needs had been divided, my desires split in two. Mine was the poorer piece of girlhood, the forced smiles, the neatly crossed legs, the directives to sit straight, sit still, stop asking silly questions. As I’d acted through that sad charade of personhood, my other self had been in here, resisting. Allowing herself what she wanted.

As the story draws to a close we are able to see the expertly crafted metaphors that have sprouted up throughout the story of Maisie and her gift which are, is a broad sense, the dynamic structure of femininity and what happens when women and girls are forced to suppress parts of ourselves to conform to the myriad of societal expectations. What Should Be Wild is magical realism at its finest- a dark and visceral story with authentic and modern themes.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Harper Books

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