By Hanna Halperin
There’s plenty of talk about the banality of evil, but I think mostly about the mundanity of trauma. When I used to be an editor at a literary magazine, every second personal essay was from a young woman about her rape, her assault, a family member negating her boundaries, a boyfriend taking advantage of her. We said no to most of those pitches; tales of men abusing women were so routine that we simply couldn’t publish every single one. There wasn’t enough bandwidth for them all. I hated that.
The extraordinary commonness of female trauma, especially at the hands of men, can work against a piece of fiction, but in the case of Hanna Halperin’s debut novel, “Something Wild,” it does the opposite. Some version of the story Halperin tells will likely feel familiar in a way that reminds you of pressing on an old bruise you were sure had healed. “Something Wild” is propulsive, tender, frustrating and entirely realistic. That’s what hurts so much.
The book follows the sisters Nessa and Tanya, who return home to help their mother, Lorraine, move to a new home with her second husband, Jesse. When they arrive to pack up their childhood home, they realize that Jesse has been abusing Lorraine, and while Tanya pushes her mother toward a restraining order, Nessa struggles with her feelings of warmth toward her stepfather. At the same time, a trauma from the sisters’ past begins to fight its way to the surface, demanding their attention. The daughters recall the feeling they’d have when they were young and would feel the chill of danger — “wild thing,” they called it, a sensation that comes to them over and over in the book. Weaving between the past and the present of all three women, “Something Wild” creates a compelling, believable and upsetting portrayal of how trauma ripples through a family.
It’s a rare story where you’re somehow rooting for everyone: You want Nessa and Tanya, who have lost each other as adults, to reconnect in that profound way only sisters can. You want Lorraine to demand more for herself, to protect herself at all costs. You want Jesse to become a better man. You obviously won’t get everything you want, but the book is an impressive hat trick, pulling empathy from you for so many people in one story. There are a few side plots that add little to the novel — Nessa’s maybe-boyfriend, Tanya’s one-dimensional nice-guy husband — but the core of the book is still blistering.