Katharine Coldiron Reviews What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine

What Should Be Wild, Julia Fine (Harper 978-0-06-2684-13-4, $26.99, 368pp, hc) May 2018.

The central conceit of What Should Be Wild, an intense and surprising novel, is that Maisie, a young woman raised in almost total isolation, has the power to kill or to resurrect anything she touches. One touch will kill a live thing or revive a dead thing, and a second touch will have the opposite effect. Anything organic which currently has life or once had life is sub­ject to her powers: people, cooked food, plants, wooden furniture, pets. Hence, Maisie was barely touched as she grew up, and she was kept more or less hidden in her family’s ancestral estate, away from everyone and everything she had the power to harm. Now, in her late teens, she must confront the world. Something in the forest has woken and is beckoning her, and two men, for different reasons, want to help her find her missing father. Because of her power, everything Maisie does is a matter of life and death. In such circumstances, is love possible?

The problem with this conceit is that Julia Fine, the author, tackles it in ways that con­tinue to poke holes in it. Why doesn’t Maisie consistently wear gloves, like Rogue of the X-Men? Why don’t her caretakers wear forensic jumpsuits, just to be safe? How is it possible that Maisie can wear clothes made of cotton without sprouting seedlings between the fibers, but touching bookshelves causes the wood to shift and grow? Fine doesn’t say. Certain kinds of readers are going to ask these questions regard­less of how the author deals with them, but Fine addresses them with an incompleteness that is more headache than explanation.

Aside from this (pervasive) issue, and some imperfect genre-mixing, What Should Be Wild is a phenomenal debut. Maisie’s journey from sheltered freak to fully realized woman is compelling, and the women of her family who interrupt the narrative to tell their stories demonstrate the novel’s fierce and subversive feminism. The forest near Maisie’s home has been a source of magic and mayhem for 1,400 years, and her female relatives have repeatedly called on that magic to save their souls. Seven of these women, from multiple centuries, are part of the story. Each was punished for one of the reasons women have historically been punished: one is promiscuous, one is a bur­densome spinster, one is unloved because of a facial defect. All of them are trapped in a kind of limbo in the forest, neither alive nor dead. Ultimately, Maisie will either join them, destroy them, or save them.

The feminism of the novel is always present, as in a scene when Maisie realizes what many women must realize about the lifesaving power of listening to their instincts: “I’d built a life around denying gut reactions, curbing my in­stincts. How was the nagging [suspicion] that I had regarding Rafe any different from the urges I had always been told to suppress?” Or when a seventh-century witch speaks against the forces that would, literally, domesticate her: “The old land, that closed house. It is a cage. It confines us.” What Should Be Wild is a direct descendant of the work of Angela Carter, in substance and in style, but it’s far more satisfying (if no less gory) than Carter’s stories. Where Carter goes short on characterization and long on language, Fine thoroughly explores the inner weather of her characters. This doesn’t mean she sacrifices language altogether, though:

The stretches of wood that had marked the first leg of our travels had grown smaller and farther between, usurped by long laps of moorland, purpled with heather and spack­led with rock… If the forest filled me with awe at the earth, the strength of the life that burst through it, this country was the saga of the sky: its infinity, the way the clouds hung low like honey as it settled into tea.

However, the book has inconsistent sophisti­cation of characterization and plot. Sometimes it resembles YA in the naiveté of its heroine and the close limits of her world. Other times it behaves like a fairy tale, exuding confidence that the world is inexplicably strange and magical, and that all are subject to bent and broken rules of mortality. Still other times, we are trapped with Maisie in a grim hotel room, subject to medical-grade bloodletting, the ambition of men trampling her in ways too realistic even to be tragic. This tumble of genres feels less like skill and more like incaution. It’s possible to see the seams of this book and find them crooked. Still, overall, Fine’s work is spellbinding enough to cast these quibbles aside.

One of the primary drivers of What Should Be Wild is the fear of female power. Maisie is just a girl, but the villains of this book seek either to tame her or to wield her, never consid­ering that she should be allowed to choose her own path. Maisie, and women across her family history, are too dangerous for that. Even fairy tales, Fine points out, don’t tell the truth about female power: “No princess had lived happily with a prince who watched her summon beasts from hell.” But this novel does. Maisie is capable of anything, once she taps into her abilities as a woman, and once she embraces her whole self. The novel turns upon that truth, and as such, it has a bewitching power of its own.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.

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