Man Booker #2. If I read them all in 2 days, I’d actually do the longlist. I don’t anticipate that will actually happen.
First, the good. I really loved the descriptive writing here, and it’s oddly where the wolves of the title seemed to fit best: narrator Linda’s sharp eyes and nose, the details of the woods of Northern Minnesota she observes so carefully. These aren’t lyrical descriptions, but matter-of-fact and perceptive.
Here’s how I remember the woods of my childhood. Every tree, even the pines planted in strict rows by the forest service years ago, seemed different: one with sap seeping out in blisters in the heat, another with a branch knocked down, leaving a gnome-like face in the wood. The woods were a kind of nursery for not thinking, for just seeing and walking along. I liked running my eyes over details, over twigs and pine needles, over roadkill with intestines like spilled baggage on the asphalt. there were certain things I knew about the woods, but always, too, there were things I was sure I’d never seen before in my life. A crow fighting with a snapping-turtle over a fast-food bag on the shoulder, for instance. Or a carpenter ant, appearing from out of nowhere on my wrist, dragging a small green caterpillar up my arm like a prize.
“A nursery for not thinking”–teenage Linda’s refusal to think about what she observes, her refusal to ask questions (which she’s learned from her father is “a kindness”) is part of the frustration for this book. We can see a lot of the big plot events looming from the opening pages, when Linda tells us that Paul, the little boy across the lake, will die, and when she sees a copy of Science and Health at his house.
Fridlund’s telegraphing and foreshadowing, the little hops forward in time to 26-year-old Linda or 37-year-old Linda, robbed the book of a lot of the menacing, fairy-tale power that its title and the publisher’s summary suggest it was meant to have. There’s a kind of surprise right at the end, but it’s all in Linda’s head and it didn’t seem sufficiently motivated by what came before.
The references to wolves, the question of who is predator and who is prey, struck me as heavy-handed. For the story of Paul and his parents, a predator/prey framework didn’t make sense to me. For the plotline about Linda’s classmate Lily and their teacher, Mr. Grierson, it worked better, but wasn’t developed.
I was never really sure how the pedophile teacher plot was supposed to relate to the Christian Science parents plot, or to Linda’s own parents’ history in a commune of which they are the only remaining members, eking out an isolated existence in a fishing cabin outside of town. These seem like very different, and very differently motivated, ways to harm a child (and while Linda is lonely, she’s cared for). Was I supposed to be connecting these plots? There are lots of interesting thematic threads in the book, but they’re roughly woven with many loose ends. Maybe it’s my failure as a reader to see this as a weakness, but I’m back to the fact that the book fizzled where it needed to explode with menace.
Finally, there’s this from Sarah Ditum’s review:
There is only one mood: slow and sad. A good teenage novel needs some riot with its woe. . . .
Despite a lot of beautifully observed moments that made me curious about what Fridlund will do next–this is her first novel–the book was mostly a drag to read. I get cranky when people say “all litfic is depressing,” and last year’s Booker winner dealt with serious subjects in an often hilarious way. Two books in, I haven’t found fun in this list, and I hope there is some.
I can’t see History of Wolves making the shortlist but I can see Fridlund growing into the promises this book doesn’t fulfill.