Anyone who is a fan of fairy tales (true fairy tales, not the sanitised Disney-fied versions) loves the dark, sinister undertones present in so many of them. These stories were tales of morality, of warning, used to teach children how to live well and stay out of trouble. Julia Fine’s exquisite debut novel, What Should Be Wild, harks back to a time of dark fairy tales.
The novel follows the story of Maisie Cothay from birth to young adulthood, with interspersed narratives of her female ancestors who found escape in the forest surrounding their family’s land. But the wood isn’t the salvation they hoped for, instead, it is just another prison.
‘Alys watched as her cousin mixed berries and blood, scratching pictures onto dry hide, disregarding her mother, who claimed that to capture a word was to empty of its power, to tame what should be wild.’
With the earliest female narratives coming from the 600s, Fine explores themes of gender oppression across the ages. Her explorations are both metaphorical and literal, with women oppressed in different ways, but ultimately unable to overcome their situation. That is, until Maisie.
Maisie is born under very unusual circumstances. Her mother dies in the early stages of pregnancy, yet the fetus lives and is brought to term inside her decaying mother. When the child is brought home, her father discovers something very strange – whenever someone touches his daughter’s skin, they die. But this isn’t quite as terrible as it might first seem – if she touches them again, they are instantly brought back to life as though nothing had ever happened.
What this does mean is that Maisie can never have a normal life. And while her father acts in Maisie’s best interest (for the most part…), he nevertheless keeps her imprisoned. As a result, Maisie is yet another woman in her family line unable to be free. A dark soul, a mirror of Maisie, begins to grow in the forest, and events start to race towards an ultimate reckoning where two worlds will collide.
The author is particularly strong in her inclusion of many different kinds of women. Women who have different motivations, backstories, personalities. Women who want children, those who don’t. Women of different ages and moral stances. Women who see events in different lights. Fine shows readers the full gamut of what women can be and it is truly refreshing to see.
‘He’s clearly trying to come in. As if he thinks he is owed entrance. I know of men like that. He isn’t worth the risk.’
Her prose is lyrical and dense. This isn’t an airplane read that you will chew through in a few hours, but something more considered. Maisie’s isolation could easily have been mishandled, another case of a fridging the female protagonist – but Fine makes her isolation a core piece of the novel. It is analysed throughout.
They ‘why’ of the supernatural element is never really addressed, but it doesn’t need to be. In this instance, Fine follows in the footsteps of fairy tales. The supernatural elements simply are – they exist to tell the story and are never questioned. Some readers might not gel with this concept, but for me, this worked as a modern fairy tale.
Verdict: A very accomplished debut, What Should Be Wild constantly surprises, taking the reader on a twisted journey of supernaturally-inspired gender politics.