History of Wolves, the debut novel from Emily Fridlund, has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and is a novel that I liked the sound of as soon as the longlist was announced, and that I bought straightaway.
Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of northern Minnesota. The other girls at school call Linda ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. Her parents mostly leave her to her own devices, whilst the other inhabitants have grown up and moved on.
So when the perfect family – mother, father and their little boy, Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. She begins to babysit Paul and feels welcome, that she finally has a place to belong.
Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice. But how can a girl with no real knowledge of the world understand what the consequences will be?
Linda, or Madeleine, is a fascinating character who comes across as being naïve in some ways, yet wise beyond her years in others. As you might expect from someone who is 14 years old, she is still developing, both physically but also in terms of her personality, and whilst she puts across a front of being comfortable in her own skin, it’s clear that she’s incredibly lonely, and this becomes one of the main themes of the novel. She lives in relative isolation, her journey from school to home is both long and would be considered somewhat arduous to many, involving several miles of walking if she has to stay late at school for any reason, and she has no friends, being considered something of a freak by her classmates.
It therefore comes as no surprise that she tries to ingratiate herself in the lives of the Gardners when they move in across the lake from her own shack (to call it a house would be stretching things a little), and she soon becomes babysitter to their four-year-old son, Paul. At the same time, she gets a new history teacher at her school, and she desires his attention as well, in all the wrong ways.
It’s clear from the beginning of the novel that there is a tragic element to the plot, and whilst the what isn’t surprising, the why is a little more shocking, although all too plausible. Somewhat unusually, the tragedy comes at around the mid-way point of the novel, and I found that I enjoyed the novel more up to this point. The first half focuses almost solely on Linda as a 14-year-old and her experiences with Paul and the Gardners and the build up to this event that the reader is expecting from the outset. From the midway point, it jumps around in time more, and includes insights into Linda’s adult life. Whilst I can see why it was done like this, I personally didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much, and I found the first half to be much more gripping. That said, the second half gives insight into the trial and what actually happened – events that Linda didn’t fully understand at the time, and so it is necessary if only to resolve the event for the reader.
I really enjoyed History of Wolves, although I’m not entirely convinced that it will go on to win this year’s Booker. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly because of a somewhat odd final chapter, and I did feel that some themes were raised and then not fully explored (although it’s possible that I’ve missed the bigger picture) but Fridlund’s writing is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐