It took me a few days to properly compose my thoughts and feelings after finishing Julia Fine’s debut novel What Should Be Wild. I needed to calm down so my entire review wouldn’t just be incoherent key mashing interspersed with “GO READ THIS BOOK!!!!!!” Hopefully, this review is a little more eloquent.
What Should Be Wild reads like a fairytale. It follows the story of Maisie Cothay, a girl who, since before birth, has possessed the uncanny ability to kill or revive any living thing with a single touch. Maisie is raised by her father in the beautiful but sequestered Blakely manor, passed down to her through her mother’s line. Her father, an anthropologist, treats Maisie more like a science experiment than a daughter, and she grows up in an extremely isolated environment, taught to reign in her curiosity and desire for her own safety. Then, her father goes missing, and Maisie ventures out with the help of a new friend to find him. As her journey takes her farther from her familiar, sheltered life, Maisie uncovers the dark secrets of her mother’s cursed bloodline, of the strange Blakely women who disappeared into the forest surrounding the Blakely manor, and the power she wields.
The novel is intricately structured. It opens on a prologue told by an omniscient narrator who describes a young girl lying in a forest clearing, wearing only the jewelry of the women who surround her. The atmosphere is beautiful and unsettling, and sets the stage for a story that is deep and dark with desire, secrets, and unspeakable horrors. Then you flip the page, and Maisie’s voice greets you as she tells the reader of the strange circumstance of her birth and upbringing. The novel shifts between chapters in Maisie’s point of view as she is set on her path and chapters that beckon the reader back into the world of the women—who we soon learn are the Blakely women, Maisie’s ancestors—the woods, and the unnamed girl.
My only real criticism of this novel is that at times, the pacing feels slow, and I sometimes had to work to bring my focus back into a scene when I found myself getting distracted. I don’t think the slow pacing is a bad thing though—Maisie has a lot to work through and much of this story’s conflict is internal and character-driven. The climax of the novel had me rapt. I will admit that I could see some readers being disappointed by the ending, but I thought it was an absolutely perfect resolution—that it fully embraces the book’s themes.
Fine has a very steady handle on writing characters. Maisie is a flawed and very distinctive protagonist whose inner logic and sense of morals is entirely shaped by her sheltered upbringing. Her father, Peter, and her friend Matthew, also feel distinctive and human, but they have a backseat in Maisie’s journey. I found the Blakely women to be the most intriguing and wonderful characters in the story. They live in a world between worlds, where time stands still, where they hover somewhere on the periphery between life and death. They are fierce and fearful, aching and longing, cursed and wild. Their stories broke my heart, and I’m so happy for it. Also, the unnamed girl is an amazing element in the story. I was floored.
This book has so much to say about how women exist in this world. At the core of the story is the theme of repression of self, desire, and instinct, and the real damage that does to people—women in particular. The way Fine crafts Maisie’s character arc and the true antagonist she must face is an incredibly powerful allegory for the way many young women struggle to accept and embrace their own inner desires, rather than looking to others for their approval. There’s power to be had in embracing all of yourself, both the beautiful and the carnal, the soft and the wild. Fine also touches on the necessity of change, and how stagnation can be a sort of living death. Honestly, please read this book. It lit me up inside.
It’s important to note that this book isn’t for the faint of heart. There are many scenes that depict death, there are several instances of cannibalism, incest is mentioned, and there’s quite a bit of violence. There’s also a fairly important chunk of the story that depicts a character being kidnapped and held captive. While these parts can be difficult to read, Fine handles these issues with care—none of these points of darkness feel excessive or unwarranted, but rather echo the way horror is used in fairytales to make social commentary.
So, yeah. This book is everything. Buy it. Read it. Read it again.
What Should Be Wild will be published on May 8 (TOMORROW!) by Harper and is available to preorder at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.