A story full of humanity

Hanna Halperin’s novel ‘Something Wild’ tackles a difficult issue with incisive prose.

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“Something Wild” by Hanna Halperin is indeed a searingly wild ride with emotional depth that takes us on a tough journey, but one very well worth taking. Halperin’s incisive prose leads us through the story of two sisters scarred by a childhood secret, and their mother, whom they come back to help move out of their childhood home. And their mother has a secret of her own, which soon blows the plot wide open.

Halperin sets the tone of her novel in her dynamite first chapter that establishes a sense of foreboding from its initial paragraph:

“When they were young, Nessa and Tanya Bloom played a game where they chased each other up the stairs of their house. Whoever was doing the chasing would get close, just at the heels of the other, reach out and grab her ankles, pinch her sides, smack her butt. It was fun at first, the thrill of running away, the thrill of chasing. They’d laugh, giddy with the fight or flightiness of it, until the one being chased would scream out, Stop, I’m getting the Wild Thing!”

This sisters’ childhood penchant for playing on the edge of danger — between thrill and terror — eventually gets the girls into a dire situation when their teenage, budding sexual selves take a fantasy too far. And Halperin lets us know right away the long-term ramifications:

“It had returned over the years — the Wild Thing — and not just on the stair, but out, at other places, with other men. Nessa can’t help but think that her body must have anticipated a certain kind of danger before she herself had understood it.

“The worst of the Wild Thing had ever gotten, and the time she and Tanya never talk about — not even to acknowledge it happened — was the night at Dan’s house fourteen years ago… That night pitted them against each other, they turned into the ugliest versions of themselves.”

The revealing of what actually happened is a slow burn that keeps you turning pages without stopping.

The tension between the sisters, who are painfully close with the push-and-pull of need, jealousy, resentments, and deep love, runs throughout the story as they deal with the trauma not just from their childhood, but of the present with the relationship between their violent stepfather and their mother, which gets so far out of hand. There also is the constant tension underlying the need for love at any cost, coming as it does from the deep dark recesses of wanting.

Halperin’s prose is piercingly emotional and carries us through alternating points of view of the two sisters — their lives separately and together, moving back and forth from their childhood to the present day and the pressing mess of violent domestic abuse. At one point Tanya, the younger and more “together” and successful of the two ruminates, “She hates this version of herself, the one she becomes when she’s around Nessa and Lorraine for too long. She begins to feel embarrassed by them. All their unhappiness starts to ooze out in small, unbearable ways. They become caricatures of themselves — their flaws exaggerated and magnified.” Tanya at her core is, as Halperin writes, someone who “looks forward with a vengeance.”

Nessa, although older, is more of a mess and deeply unhappy at her very core. Nessa reflects, “She understands sadness — often this made people feel safe around her. But she hasn’t yet figured out what to do with this sadness, or how to make it go away.”

While all three of the women have their struggles and flaws, Halperin renders them so beautifully that we are captivated by their humanness. She says of the inspiration for her plot, “I think of it more that I chose the characters, rather than the subject, that these are the things that are happening in these people’s lives. Power dynamics in relationships is something I have always been attuned to. I was working as a domestic violence counselor on Martha’s Vineyard while I was writing the first draft, and I was thinking especially about how violence and trauma are passed down in families.”

“I think it’s really difficult when someone comes to you and discloses that they are in an abusive relationship,” Halperin says. “It can be a painful conversation to navigate — for both people. The characters in this book struggle. They love each other and they are constantly letting each other down. I hope the book opens up a conversation about how to talk about that. My greatest hope is that the book makes people feel less alone, because that is what books have done for me.”

Regardless of whether you have direct experience with the issues in “Wild Thing” or not, Halperin’s talent as a writer makes the book one of the year’s must reads.

“Something Wild: A Novel,” Hanna Halperin, Viking. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven and online. Halperin will be on a panel on Sunday, Sept. 19, at Islanders Write. For more information, visit mvartsandideas.com/islanders-write.