History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

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.

I’ll never manage these Booker posts if I try to provide coherent reviews. Blurb from publisher here. Review by Jennifer Senior I’d pretty much cosign here. My random thoughts? Read on here.

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.

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5 Responses to History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

  1. Sunita says:

    Oh, I’m glad you read this one because I definitely would not have made it. It reminds me too much of Marlena; the same type of writing, the retrospection, the dead child whose fate may or may not be made sense of by the end. My generosity for these types of projects is completely used up at this point (just in case you couldn’t tell).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was glad that the plotline with the teacher and the other girl wasn’t that big a part of the book, because I thought it was very familiar (both the possible pedophilia and, as you said about Marlena, the PAIR of girls. Can a girl have a story without a foil, please? Lily didn’t really end up being a foil exactly but that whole plotline seemed unnecessary to me).

      The retrospection didn’t really work either, because I am not sure Linda learned or changed or grew. Adult Linda didn’t necessarily have more perspective (and often the teen parts were narrated without a sense of adult retrospection). It left me wondering why the flash forward parts were there, too. One review suggested that the fact she hasn’t really left her past behind (or thought it through) might show how inaction can scar you as much as doing something, and I think that’s a good point but . . . . I know I am a reader who likes things to MAKE SENSE and maybe the book was deliberately resisting that, but it seemed undercooked (underthought?) rather than deliberate.

      I’d like her to just write a book about walking through the woods.

      • Sunita says:

        I have written and erased several comments to your comments, because they wind up dumping on this book and the Buntin, and I’m not sure I’m being fair to either of them. Mostly I don’t like the trends of One Critical Year and the Foil Friend. But I don’t know why I should expect lit fic to be less trend- and publicity-driven than any other genre, it’s the nature of the beast now.

  2. Bellezza says:

    I thought the problem for me was largely because I read this on the heels of Solar Bones and Days Without End, two shockingly good novels either of which I’d be happy to win. Although I haven’t read more than four from the list yet. But this? I was bored. I thought the writing less than up to the quality expected for this Prize. Overall, I was hugely disappointed.

    Thank you for your excellent post, and leaving such an indepth comment on mine. How nice to “meet” you.

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