Before Women in Translation month began, I resolved to read more of the books I already have at home on my shelves. What Should Be Wild has been with me for ages – through several job changes and a major move. It has definitely waited long enough to be read, and I’m sorry it took such a length of time!
Maisie Cothay is born with the ability to kill and resurrect with a touch, her first casualty being her mother while she is still growing in the womb. Maisie’s father Peter raises her in almost total isolation on Urizon, his wife’s family estate. A man of science, Peter uses Maisie’s childhood as an opportunity to conduct controlled experiments testing his daughter’s capabilities and limits. As Maisie grows, so too does her longing for companionship and it isn’t to be sated until an unexpected event sends her out into the world for the first time.
Conceptually, I loved this book. The narrative certainly had a fairy-tale quality that I enjoyed, and the prose was often beautiful. This is the kind of book that it would be a pleasure to read aloud to oneself. Maisie’s narration from childhood to young adulthood was interesting, clearly unreliable but all the better for it. I did wish that she had stayed younger for more of the novel, but then I suppose it would have been more of a candidate for a duology instead.
Maisie’s perspective is interspersed with that of the ‘lost women’ of the Blakely family (her mother’s family), women who throughout the ages have sought refuge of different sorts in the woods surrounding the estate.
These two perspectives played well off each other and were probably my favourite part of the book outside of the concept itself. The ‘origin’ chapters of each woman were the parts I liked the most.
The lost women are all interesting in their vices and faults, and I would have gladly read more about them all. Maisie is exactly as you’d expect someone so isolated to be: naïve, eager to make friends, and foolish as heck. Peter (her father) was a flawed man, whose character arc I found excellent as he learned and grew during his short presence in the narrative. The two male side characters were both quite forgettable and firstly seemed to be shoehorned in as possible love interests. When one is revealed to be something else, it was a rather stale twist that didn’t quite make the impact it should have.
There were some pretty gruesome scenes in the book, but I expected that considering the subject matter.
Ultimately, the problems I have with this book are the same ones I always seem to find in magical realism or literary fiction that feels like dabbling in the fantastical: it just didn’t follow through. The author spent so much time laying the groundwork of Maisie’s (and the other women’s) circumstances, but then ignored them in favour of tying a neat little bow around the boring ending of the book. Maisie’s powers and the intrigue of the woods are the central focus of the story, but it isn’t enough to keep them the focus at the end.
While I did enjoy reading this, I was disappointed that I read through so urgently to the end only for it to be such a letdown. There was so much potential here for the story to say more about women’s bodies and agency (which I did feel it attempted) but it really let itself down at the end if that’s what it was trying for. Previous events and interactions were glossed over to the detriment of the story.
There was the possibility for the narrative to come full circle, which was entirely ignored to my dismay. Though the book does try to focus on morality and the importance of one’s actions and choices, it failed by believing the fantasy elements it introduced couldn’t further an ending with any impact – and in doing so robbed readers of any satisfying conclusion.
Still, if you’re in the mood for a book with lovely prose, and don’t mind the complete disregard laid by the fantasy groundwork in the beginning, you might be well served by giving this one a try.
Have you read What Should Be Wild? Do you have any similar recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!