Whilst a beautifully written novel, no matter how much I appreciated Emily Fridlund’s prose and her vivid sense of place, History of Wolves failed to emotionally engage me.
It’s an austere novel of northern Minnesota and its long, harsh winters and equally brutal, short summers where fourteen year-old Linda lives with her ex-commune parents on the shores of a network of lakes. Isolated, Linda is something of an outsider. With no friends to speak of, her life revolves around domesticity; the family dogs and long hikes between home, school and the nearby town.
Into her life come Patra and precocious young son, Paul, who move into the luxurious cabin across the lake. But as early as page four, we know the child is doomed. It simply takes most of the novel to find out just how.
With Paul’s controlling and overbearing father Leo mostly absent, Linda’s narration meanders through babysitting duties; encounters with her teacher, Mr Grierson; home life and a teenage crush on Patra. It’s a time-fractured narrative: Linda as a teenager is interspersed with an older, but not necessarily wiser, Linda reflecting on events she is only now able to come to terms with.
History of Wolves is a transformative coming-of-age tale, its central character a narcissistic teenager blind to events around her, subject to bouts of meanness verging on cruelty. But Linda is also something of a victim – regarded as a freak at school with parents who barely acknowledge her. An adult Linda says of herself I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister…I made people feel judged.
Time with Paul and, in particular, with Patra offers the young girl a sense of being needed for the first time. But the arrival of Leo sees all that unravel. Linda knows something is wrong but cannot see what secrets she is being drawn into, what is yet to unfold. It is the older version that drip-feeds us insight and knowledge, creating a sense of foreboding and uncertainty without giving the whole game away.
But when the whole is revealed, it’s a crashing disappointment, an almost throwaway reveal. That whole lacks any real urgency – a thriller without any sense of thrill. The beauty and strength of History of Wolves is in its original and haunting prose – not its storytelling.
Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.