11th July, 2021

Wild by Kristin Hannah (PanMacmillan)

Family dynamics are something we can find in almost any Kristin Hannah novel. And sisterhood seems to be particularly close to the author's heart: She has written several books that focus on the complex feelings that drive sisters apart, that keep them separate and that - sometimes - reunite them. 

Wild, which is a reissueing of Hannah's 2016 novel Magic Hour, centres on two sisters who are brought back together by rather unusual circumstances. 

Julia is a successful, well-known child psychiatrist. When one of her patients runs amok killing several children, the press and the bereaved parents blame Julia for not recognizing the danger. With her career in shatters and at an emotional low point, Julia answers the phone and hears her sister’s voice. Although the two women haven’t spoken in years, Ellie, chief of police for an isolated rural community, needs her big-city sister’s help. Now.

A little girl has wandered out of the Olympic peninsula rain forest and into Ellie’s town. She’s like an animal, unable to communicate in any normal human way. While Ellie searches for the girl’s identity, she enlists Julia to help with the “wild child’s” damaged psyche. Together, the two sisters will work to bring the nameless soul back to normalcy. If they can.

Once more, Kristin Hannah writes wonderfully about how the family dynamics of our childhood are carried over into adulthood, and about how these patterns might be overcome. Wild has multiple storylines: Plot one dwells on Julia, and the ways she regains her professional confidence while working with the traumatised child. Plot two centers on the old family patterns that resurface when Julia and Ellie begin living together in their late parents’ house. The two women, now in their late thirties, are fundamentally different. Ellie, the eldest, was prom queen material in her youth. Two marriages (to prom king material) have failed. Lanky and slightly awkward Julia was the brainy sister. She always thought their father loved Ellie the best, while Ellie always thought their mother preferred Julia. As the story progresses, we see clearly how their upbringing damaged both women’s abilities to forge enduring relationships with men.

All this sisterhood byplay, however, is pushed into the background as first Julia and then Ellie grow increasingly attached to the “wild child”, the mute little girl they name Alice.  Alice isn’t autistic as everyone initially believed, but a victim of a hideous crime. Someone has kept her tied up, somewhere in the wilderness of the Olympic peninsula. When the girl's biological father shows up to claim her, things become really complicated. 

Hannah has a real knack for creating intuitive characters who grow and mature through the course of a story.  This one is particularly shrewd, both for its sisterhood connections and for its psychiatric perceptions of childhood development. Wild is emotionally gripping, but it’s also clever, one of those novels that keep you up at night, one of those novels not easily forgotten. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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