Desert Isle Keeper
What Should Be Wild
Julia Fine enchants with a towering, powerful tale of womanhood, frustration, coming of age and deep love, in What Should Be Wild.
We begin with birth emerging from death; Maisie Cothay, delivered breathing from the body of her dead and literally rotting mother, is afflicted with a terrible and mysterious curse – the touch of her flesh to that of another living thing has the power to kill or resurrect the affected. Her father, Peter, learned of this sad gift first hand when Maisie’s quick growth in-utero killed his wife, turning the family into a nationwide spectacle. After she accidentally killed him three times (it makes sense in the book – honest!) before she turned eight and proceeded to kill their housekeeper, Mrs. Blott, several times more, he decides to deal with his daughter’s powers by sequestering her in silence and isolation in the family’s forest-adjacent mansion.
Maisie hasn’t known the power of human touch since then; forever swaddled in gloves and boots to prevent her powers from seeping through, she has known human kindness thanks to Mrs. Blott, and been intensely educated thanks to her father, but never had privacy, respect or physical affection; the two adults and her death-immune dog, Marlowe, are the only creatures which keep her company. Her father also treats her as a scientific experiment, and one with no grand ambitions. She has been raised alone on tales of her mother’s people, the once-thriving and rich Blakelys, who have been the subject of a dark curse for eons.
When Maisie grows into a teenager, Mrs.Blott passes on and Maisie then becomes determined to use her gift to resurrect her. When Maisie’s father refuses to allow her to do this, Maisie runs away into the woods and soon becomes completely lost for three days. In the interim, her father disappears and, with the help of a map he’s left behind, she manages to figure out that he’s somewhere within the vicinity of a concentric circle looping the town. Accompanied by Matt, Mrs. Blott’s great-nephew, and Rafe, a young friend who claims to have business with her father, she journeys out to discover her father and solve the mystery of his disappearance, dealing with complicated feelings for both men and falling into fearsome danger along the way.
All the while, the wood calls to her – as magical, as forbidden, as enchanted as Maisie herself. It is an ever-shifting place, easy to be lost in, and it usually expels any man who sets foot within it. Women, however – women it keeps. A group of them, all of them Maisie’s Blakely ancestors, have disappeared into the forest and had been given up for dead only to exist in eternal life, ageless for centuries among creatures who are likewise unchanging. Upon seeing her, only her great-great aunt Lucy recognizes that Maisie’s existence is what keeps them bound in place, and that she is the key to getting the entire group of them out of the forest and back into the living world. She creates a double of the girl, and therein lies the dark heart of the tale.
What Should Be Wild is an incomparable fairytale that startles with originality, yet manages to feel like it’s as old as the ground from which the forest springs. This is Ms. Fine’s first published work, a fact that startles, for this is a polished, beautiful work of art that is haunting, memorable and pulse-pounding.
It is, of course, not for the faint of heart. It’s the kind of story where, when a dead character’s shin bone is detached from his body by an excitable dog, there is only a mild exclamation about it from the characters. There is gore, body horror, animal cruelty and murder, rape and violence. And many, many, many sharp needles.
Which brings me to the only reason I haven’t awarded the novel an A grade. To reveal much about the middle stretch of the novel would be to spoil a major plot point, which I’m unwilling to do. I will say though, that while this particular development does lead to a vital, necessary change in Maisie, it only slightly impacts the final outcome of the story and the final resolution of the drama. While it changes her from trusting innocent who literally doesn’t know how to boil water to Carrie-like vengeance seeker, it hammers home too obviously the book’s ideas about the ugliness of violence that can exist between men and women.
But even with that middle stretch, the novel is a near-perfect experience, genuinely spellbinding, and well worth seeking out.