Young Maisie Cothay can kill or resurrect at a touch. Not just humans, either: she has accidentally resurrected winter-killed grass, taxidermy, and roadkill. Because of this, her widowed father raised her in her family’s ancient stone-walled manor house, in almost complete isolation, since birth. But at age sixteen, she finds herself without a guardian, scared and truly alone. So, like girls everywhere, she prepares for an epic quest.
Debut novelist Julia Fine creates a sort of Modernist Gothic tale, a story about a girl who cannot exist with society, but whose coming of age makes her desperately lonely. It has all the classic Gothic components: mysterious old house full of relics, dark forest, moving pathways, evil inheritance. Fine combines these elements with a dawning adulthood, with all the complexities that entails, in a symbolic Mulligan stew that’s remarkably unsubtle, but nevertheless pretty satisfying.
Maisie’s father raises her in Urizon, a massive, labyrinthine house that’s been in her late mother’s family for generations. She grew up with only books for companions, which explains her strange, Jane Austen-esque manner of speaking in the early 21st Century. Maisie’s only friends were Mrs. Blott, a grandmotherly woman from town, and a dog named Marlowe, the only living thing that resists the mortal effects of her touch.
Urizon overlooks a mysterious, trackless forest. Local legends abound of villagers who wandered into the forest and emerged, days or weeks later, gibbering deliriously about how the pathways move behind them, so they cannot find their way out. Despite encroaching modernism, the forest remains a primeval source of terror. We know, though Maisie doesn’t, how seven women in her matrilineal genealogy wandered into this forest… and are still watching her.
This placement within a literary continuum could be criticism or praise. Reading this novel, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences. However, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences, yippee! Though it’s possible, even easy, to identify where Fine appropriated plot elements and character types, she handles them well, constructing a story where the pieces fit smoothly, without a sense of being stitched together.
Fine keeps the novel’s setting fairly ambiguous. The Elizabethan manor house, overlooking a village straight from The Wicker Man, suggests England, as does the gradually revealed family line, dating back to the Iron Age. But certain cultural markers, including Maisie’s generous use of Americanisms, suggest a North American setting. Such ambiguity of place reflects Gothic tradition: the story is usually set everywhere and nowhere, to literary sticklers’ chagrin.
I can muster one definite criticism. Around the one-third mark, old age takes Mrs. Blott (what a perfectly Dickensian name!). Her role—old, maternal, vaguely sexless—transfers to her university-age nephew, whom Maisie can’t help noticing is handsome, with his runner’s physique and curly hair. This leads to Maisie’s nascent sexual awakening, which Fine describes in terms of her body: breasts, thighs, and other chicken parts. She sounds uncannily like a male writer.
So yeah, spoilers but not really: Mrs. Blott dies, Maisie’s father evidently wanders into the forest that sometimes takes people, and Maisie finds herself without guardians for the first time. But she gains her first connection with a human being near her own age. Maisie and Matthew resolve to rescue her father, though they don’t know where to begin. This commences Maisie’s symbolic rise to adulthood, in which sexuality inevitably plays a part.
Of everything Fine addresses in this novel, the one thing I wish she handled more subtly was Maisie’s sexuality. Other parts of her relationship with Matthew, and others, flow naturally, especially for a girl who experiences life primarily through books. The fantasy aspects never seem pasted onto the coming-of-age narrative. Fine is realistic where realism works, and Gothic where supernaturalism serves her story’s needs.
This book primarily appeals to readers who already appreciate the Goth-Lit tradition, who understand how Fine’s consciously anachronistic storytelling serves a purpose. Audiences unfamiliar with Gothic tropes may find her choices confusing. But for the correct readers, Fine creates a supernatural story just realistic and relevant enough to add something new to the tradition.