Reflection: What Should be Wild by Julia Fine

This Sunday I determinedly curled up on my couch and read. I read all day. My housemates walked back and forth past me, my cat yelled at me, and I stayed under a doona and read. It was glorious. I read What Should be Wild by Julia Fine.  I don’t remember why it was I purchased this book, only that it arrived in a Book Depository delivery and I think the front cover is pretty. I regularly judge books by their covers and there are some very pretty books that are being released at the moment. however, What Should be Wild is more than just a pretty face.

Julia Fine draws on elements of European fairytale, legend and myth to weave together a contemporary fantasy that positions readers to think about autonomy, power, respect, and responsibility. The story follows the coming of age of Maisie, a neo liberal subject par excellence (she has a Midas-like condition which limits her ability to physically connect with people). Maisie has the ability to both kill and give life through her touch. Her mother dies while she is still a foetus and is kept in a persistent vegetative state in order to incubate Maisie. Already this is a story of a girl who should not be. Like the Maisie in Henry James’ novel What Maisie Knew, Fine’s Maisie relies more on an out of family mother figure for guidance and affection than she does on her father, and it is as these external mother figures pass that Maisie must confront who she is and what her place is in the world. Having been secluded at the family estate, Urizon, Maisie is cast in and out of worlds, when her father disappears, and she must make her own connections with other people and learn to negotiate in a strange and often hostile environment.

The story reads less like the urban fantasy usually associated with coming of age stories, and more like weird fiction, although with a gothic twist. Perhaps it is pushing towards magical realism, but the story never quite manages to replicate either the aesthetic or political imperative of this genre. Instead it is more indebted to fairytale and the katabasis: the journey to an other realm. Fine follows the classic structure of a descent story, however rather than a journey into the Underworld, it is more reminiscent of the British Pagan tradition of an Otherworld, as exemplified in texts such as Sir Orfeo, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan and Wendy. In these variations the journey is not so much one of diametrically opposed symbolic opposites (death/life, above/below, day/night, masculine/feminine) but about the slantedness of existence: the periphery, the shadow, and the reflection — that which is seen but unknowable. This unknowableness proves to be a powerful tool in Maisie’s quest.

Fine also draws on some of Angela Carter’s heritage to create characters shaped by story; they are knowable only through tropes. I think the most interesting of these is the largely silent Alys, a character who observes her static Wonderland for 1500 some years before achieving her revenge. This Celtish figure has a Boudicca-like feel, and immediately put me in mind of Carter’s Wolf Alice, as we (of course) as Lewis Carrol’s protagonist. I admit that I am partial to a psychoanalytic reading (come at me) and this character, with her silences, her sharp teeth (all the better to), her linguistic and social and cultural distance from the other characters, is so completely other that she provides a moral and ethical ambiguity to Maisie’s quest: is she returning lost-women to their home? Is she destroying the home as a manifestation of colonisation from (what seems to be Britain’s) long distant past? This might initially read as a stretch, but given the house’s name approximates William Blake’s embodiment of conventional wisdom and law, the house manifests as the ultimate patriarch and the embodiment of colonisation.

Fine imbues the anglicised landscape with sensucht: the stories that shaped that landscape are kept from the reader, they are hinted at—forests are full of wolves, wise women, girls and woodsmen—but these stories are never revealed in full. There is no source or origin or beginning that is truly made available to the readers. This provides the reader with a space in which to consider colonisation, the theft of land, and the disconnect between stories and country that can result.

I enjoyed this book. It is as tangled as the undergrowth through which its characters stumble. Happy to lend it out. (less)

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