Upon opening Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should Be Wild, the reader is confronted by a dark ink blot of a family tree, a gothic sprawl upon the page that lists in fine, white text the lineage of the novel’s central character, Maisie Cothay, whose father, Peter, had married into the Blakelys. That family name is one of several shifting allusions to William Blake that are contained within the book. That ancestry descends from an unknown, white blankness at the top of the page (which, as is later hinted at, precedes some variant of the Ango-Saxon age) to a solid entry in black text that reads: Maisie B. 1990.
What Should Be Wild, then, is set in a time approximating the current age, although there are subtle hints that it is not our world but rather its dream image. The location, Coeurs Crossing, is somewhere that really belongs in a tale by Charles Perrault or the Grimm brothers, and this uncertainty allows Fine enough freedom to play with the atmosphere of this strange space without being tied to all-too familiar places. It is most similar, perhaps, to the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, an author whose influence Fine has acknowledge in an interview with Qwillery magazine. The link to Pullman also allows her to subtly allude to another source, William Blake, and the key to the Blakely family does indeed include William, the father of Helen, born in 1660, one of seven daughters who is trapped near the house and whose story slowly unfolds throughout the novel.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the story of What Should Be Wild centres on Maisie, interwoven with the tales of her seven ancestors, all of whom have grown up in a strange house (a gloomy Manderley) named Urizon that was built by William Blakely. Maisie, as we discover in the opening pages, is one of a line of cursed women and is herself a literal marriage of life and death, able to kill and revive creatures with her touch. It is this morbid power that led to her mother’s death while she was still in the womb, and Maisie has grown up in Urizon alone with her father, Peter, an introverted, academic figure who married into the Blakely family and, for much of the novel, occupies an ambiguous position. When Peter disappears into the woods surrounding Urizon, into which it seems no man can venture and remain sane, and from which the daughters of Urizon cannot escape once they have entered, Maisie sets out in search of him accompanied by two companions, Matthew and Rafe. As the novel slowly progresses, so we learn more about Urizon, the seven women and the strange, black-eyed girl who spontaneously generated within the forest after the birth of Maisie.
Some reviewers appear to have had problems with What Should Be Wild in terms of its genre: although the novel seems to have appealed greatly to many readers, for others its uneasy classification as fantasy or horror or thriller has affected how they have approached it, especially in terms of pace or plotting. The dreamlike quality of the book certainly works against it as a piece of detective fiction, and attempts to construct it as a feminist version of Pushing Daisies also seem a little wide of the mark to me. In the interview mentioned previously, Fine indicates that some of her other influences include Karen Russell, Doris Lessing (whose The Golden Notebook is cited at the beginning of the novel), Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, and Audrey Niffenegger has also warmly praised the book. If there is a genre to which this book belongs, it is perhaps Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, and as such another critical comment by some readers and reviewers – that the seven women do not really work as characters – was less important to me when set against a backdrop of zoas, emanations and spectres.
There are various subtle reminders of William Blake throughout the novel – one location is Urthon Hill, for example, while a chapter on “Symmetry and balance” invokes the tyger and notions of contraries – but it is Urizon that most clearly links him to What Should Be Wild. The house is a literary emblem, part Rebecca’s Manderley, part Miss Havisham’s Satis House, also reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher: its name is almost certainly intended to invoke the notion of Urizenic reason, the masculine imposition of which imprisons all the women of the novel, but Fine’s characterisation of the place is more sophisticated than that. Urizon is also a home, a haven, and its final destruction also represents the shock of uncertainty that freedom brings as well as its pleasures. That ambivalence also extends to the relationship between Maisie and her father, Peter: I kept expecting him to become more clearly malign but he is perhaps closer to a (rather less dynamic) Lord Asriel in Pullman’s trilogy. The relations between the two do appear to evoke a Blakean spirit, however: as in “The Little Girl Lost”, Maisie wanders like Lyca through the “desert wild” until she is found by her parents among the tigers and lions, asleep. The beast of prey here is the silent, malevolent black eyed girl:
What is this girl? All of the Blakely women wonder. Is she a demon, biding her time? Some sort of savior? The dark twin of the girl at Urizon? One of their own, unborn daughters made flesh? The girl was born within the wood, not taken later, like the rest of them. There is nothing of the outside world upon her. Nothing broken. No scarred flesh. (P.65)
This silent girl is as evil as the woods, but it is a wild evil outside the place of men that exists upon its own terms (and, as each of the Blakely women recall their experiences, less brutal than the evils of men, though perhaps ultimately more fatal). It is a marriage of sorts between Maisie and this girl that the novel aspires to. A more mundane struggle between good and evil angels takes place between Matthew and Rafe, Maisie’s male companions. In the case of Maisie at least, overt sexual awakenings are dealt with more subtly, although the literal bleeding that takes place is a violation as sickening as any rape (and resolved in as satisfying a manner as would occur in one of Angela Carter’s stories). Rather than a marriage of good and evil, the figures of Matthew and Rafe are perhaps best viewed as Maisie’s emanation and spectre, one who will fulfil her, the other a negation of her desires, one of the many feminist twists of Fine’s book that subverts Blake’s masculine model of the human psyche.
The conclusion of the novel, where Maisie meets her dark alter ego, reminds me somewhat of Blake’s Milton a Poem, where Milton confronts and reclaims his spectre, Satan. If that is the case (and not simply me reading too much into the book), then Fine once more teases and twists that conclusion, creating a true marriage of what has been inhibited and what should be wild, a union of heaven and hell. A text that may be closer to the author’s intentions is Visions of the Daughters of Albion, not only for its accounts of Oothoon’s brutal treatment at the hands of Bromion and Theotormon, but also for the determination of the hero and the clarity of her perceptions:
Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old. (3.8-14, E47)
Oothoon’s understanding of the extra-sensory elements of the natural world seems to be a suitable model for the awakening of Maisie. Visions is also Blake’s early work that introduces Urizen as “Creator of men! Mistaken Demon of heaven” one whose “joys are tears! thy labour vain, to form men to thine image.” (5.3-4, E48). Although nowhere near as malevolent as Urizen, Peter has mistakenly tried to make his daughter into his own image, to protect her as much as to conform her, and if the house of Urizon is a haven it is also clearly a prison. The daughters of Urizon have frequently sought escape from its confines only to become trapped in turn in the woods beyond the house of men: Maisie’s union with the wild child of that forest is what finally liberates her.
What Should Be Wild is wonderfully written, and Julia Fine’s style is frequently beautiful and poetic without being laboured, as when she describes the end of the house which William Blakely built:
The forest spools and gathers, holds its breath until evening. In the dark it protracts to take a fuller span of William Blakely’s masterpiece, Urizon, Helen’s home. Mary’s home. Emma’s and Lucy’s. The ivy moves quickest, sneaking in through the cracks in the stone, under the doors, forcing them wider. The roots of the yard oaks crack like cramped legs and extend themselves, sighing as they stretch against the floorboards, popping them loose. Tree branches tap windows. Wild roses, sharp-edged and hideously sweet, thorn through and scent the parlors. The outside comes in. Centuries of stagnation have exploded into action; eternal life, an eternal inertia, releasing all the force it’s held at bay. (P.291)
Some readers appear to have been confounded by the pacing and plotting of the novel, and, in this respect, for her first novel Fine might have been better served by the more compact visions of Angela Carter, whose relative brevity made her easier for many to digest. This is the difficulty of literary fantasy, a genre that operates outside many of the restrictions of typical genre expectations. For those, such as myself, interested in how William Blake can be taken up and transmuted into a feminist tale of awakening and transformation, it is a thoroughly fascinating and beautifully poetic novel.
Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild, Harper, 2018. RRP, hardback: £20.99.