Daughters of the Wild, the latest book by Brooklyn’s Natalka Burian, is a challenging novel to read.
The challenge, however, does not derive from cerebral language, intricate plotting or from the author’s unconventional voice, but rather from the fact that the story Burian has chosen to tell is dark, disturbing, disjointed and downright absurd. Its premise is silly, its title misleading, and its character and plot development amateurish.
Burian is the owner of two popular Brooklyn bars and the co-founder of The Freya Project, a non-profit reading series that supports the work of women and non-binary writers. She is as well the author of the young adult fiction Welcome to the Slip Stream, and this new novel, purportedly for adults, also reads as though intended for a much younger audience.
The writing is simplistic, and key elements of the narrative hardly make sense. At the same time, though, the subject matter — severely abused and neglected foster children living on a rural West Virginia farm, and forced to tend to a mystical plant — is clearly not intended for youth.
Cello and Joanie are the eldest of these two foster siblings, irregularly parented by a hapless couple named Sil and Letta. Deeply devoted to one another, Cello and Joanie are the two who take the most responsibility for nurturing and cultivating the Vine of Heaven plant, and for looking after and out for the other foster children, as well as Joanie’s infant son.
Cello and Joanie’s devotion to one another is tested when that baby goes missing and each, in their own way, tries to find out who has taken him and figure out how to bring him home.
Cello does so through some duplicitous sleuthing, working on the side, and the help of a newfound friend who, weirdly and illogically, then becomes Cello’s boyfriend.
Joanie does so by ritually communing with the magical plant and revisiting the lessons and abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother-in-law after being forced into marriage with the woman’s inept and chronically ill son.
That abuse, described in horrific, albeit artless detail, is one of several beatings in the book. On the other hand, the infant’s disappearance, the discovery of what happened to him, the children’s reaction to the sudden death of their cruel nemesis Mother Joseph as well as Cello and Joanie’s eventual escape from the farm, among many other critical events, are given ridiculously short shrift — almost as though they don’t matter at all.
And yet, in spite of all the ways in which this novel does not work, it is easy to imagine it being sold to and adapted for television. Although it warrants a title change, if Cello is to remain as its central character, Daughters of the Wild’s uncomfortable and disturbing mélange of magical realism, violence, darkness, confused teenagers and conflicted heroes might just find a decent Netflix audience — among young adults, that is.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.