Title: History of Wolves
Author: Emily Fridlund
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Read: October 2016
Expected publication: 3 January 2017
Linda has an idiosyncratic home life: her parents live in abandoned commune cabins in northern Minnesota and are hanging on to the last vestiges of a faded counter-culture world. The kids at school call her 'Freak', or 'Commie'. She is an outsider in all things. Her understanding of the world comes from her observations at school, where her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography, and from watching the seemingly ordinary life of a family she babysits for. Yet while the accusation against the teacher is perhaps more innocent than it seemed at first, the ordinary family turns out to be more complicated. As Linda insinuates her way into the family's orbit, she realises they are hiding something. If she tells the truth, she will lose the normal family life she is beginning to enjoy with them; but if she doesn't, their son may die.
Superbly-paced and beautifully written, HISTORY OF WOLVES is an extraordinary debut novel about guilt, innocence, negligence, well-meaning belief and the death of a child.
The teenage years are difficult for most of us, but 15-year-old Madeline (aka Linda, aka Mattie) finds it even harder to fit in than other girls in her peer group. Having been brought up in a commune by ageing hippies, she now lives with the people she calls Mum and Dad in a cabin on the shores of a lake in a remote wilderness area of Minnesota. At times, she even questions whether these people are her real parents, as she has no concrete memories of ever belonging to anyone in particular in the commune, but drifting through the hands of many different people and sharing the house with various other children, all of who have long drifted away. Perhaps it is this unusual upbringing that makes Madeline associate more with wild animals than people, roaming the wild woods in her free time and watching people’s behaviours with the fascination of an outsider. And whilst she has a good grasp on the behaviour of wild creatures, such as wolves, humans are much harder to understand. Take Mr Grierson, her new history teacher, who is being accused of seducing a 15-year old girl, the beautiful mysterious Lily who has been the closest thing to a friend Madeline has ever had at school. In the midst of trying to come to terms with this evolving scandal, a new family moves into the cabin across the lake, and Madeline starts babysitting their 4-year old Paul after school, becoming part of the family. But the happy family picture may be hiding an ugly truth that will shape Madeline’s life in ways she cannot foresee ...
History of Wolves is a haunting and somewhat disturbing coming of age story which soon caught me up in its descriptive prose. It easily evokes images of a wild young girl on the cusp of womanhood roaming the forests, peering through the windows of strangers, yearning to be let inside and be loved. Madeline is a fascinating and engaging protagonist, and whilst she always holds the reader at arms’ length, I wanted to be part of her world. Amongst the descriptions of a wild and beautiful land lies the harshness of living outside the grid, the cold and dark winter nights without adequate heating or power, without a car to get to town, wearing clothes stitched from old rags as there is no money to buy such luxury as new ones. Without the usual trappings of our modern era, Madeline spends her after-school hours roaming amongst the wild creatures she identifies with, time stretching in endless loops into the distant horizon.
With the arrival of Patra, Leo and Paul Gardner, the story takes on a more sinister, haunting note, and it is clear that nothing good can come out of the relationship. I wished that the author had not revealed halfway through the book what fate awaited the family, as this mystery kept me reading on avidly and, once revealed, spoiled the journey a bit for me. I would have preferred to savour the journey to the inevitable ending, slowly unpeeling the layers of events as they unfolded rather than jumping the timeline and being allowed a peek at the events that would follow. That, and the strange jumbling of timelines are my biggest gripe with the story, which I otherwise savoured in all its strangeness and with the fascination of a stranger looking into Madeline’s life, so alien from my own. As it was, I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the later parts, and the ending left me puzzled and a bit unsatisfied, having expected some sort of consolidation of earlier loose ends. However, I loved Fridlund’s lyrical prose and the images she conjured up so effortlessly, even though some of the characters left me with a sense of dread and the type of prickly sensation on my skin only a hot shower can wash away. All in all, a mixed bag for me for the reasons mentioned, but I have no hesitation in picking up another novel from the author in future.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.