History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
For Linda, isolation and loneliness are all she knows during her adolescent years. She finds an outlet with Mr Grierson, the new history teacher, and the scandal that breaks out when child pornography is found in his possession. And when the new neighbours across the lake suddenly arrive seemingly on vacation, Linda finds new people to obsess over. She becomes involved with the family helping the young mother, Patra with her four-year-old son, Paul as the nanny in a nightmare of a story where science and belief play a deadly game.
When I first heard of History of Wolves it was because of its place in the Man Booker longlist and, consequently, I had no idea of what the story was about. A scroll through Goodreads gave me some basic first information: a debut novel by an author with a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing which sounds promising, categorised as young adult and short in length. With that information in mind I dove into a story that, from the first page, bargains a haunting plot.
Later, I could get that drizzle feeling just about any time I saw a kid on a swing. The hopelessness of it—the forward excitement, the midflight return. The futile belief that the next time around, the next flight forward, you wouldn’t get dragged back again. You wouldn’t have to start over, and over.
It often is the case as adults that we look back in our adolescent years when we were 14 or 15 years old, with nostalgia and a feeling of sadness for the careless days of our past. Despite a sentimentality stemming from a life long past however, adolescence is portrayed in many novels and stories as indeed one of the hardest periods of life. In Linda’s case the teenage years following a childhood of neglect and loneliness prove traumatic. In fact, Linda is a tragic protagonist in a terrible story taking place in the bleak landscape of cold, gothic Minnesota woods where her parents are occupying a small cabin by the lake. The kids at school call her “Linda” or “Commie” or “Freak” and it is all the way through the end that Linda’s portrait as a girl entering womanhood is being drawn, presenting an underfed and neglected adolescent who has been left to fend for her own for most of her life. It is not only that she has no friends, for how could a person that goes to school wearing her father’s oversized for her bulk clothes and boots, a person who is barely able to keep up with basic human hygiene, able to make friends, Linda has virtually no one, and as she suspects her parents, the two people comprising what is left of a failed communal cult, might not even be her actual biological parents. At a time when mental and physical stimulation are crucial to a person’s well-being, Linda takes up heavy chores like fishing and caring for the four dogs the family keeps in chains outside at night. Of course, the consequences on her psyche are dire, and Linda becomes a deeply disturbed individual with a vague perception of where the line between right and wrong lies.
By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world. They were the best kinds of quacks, if that’s what you wanted—pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.
In the chaos of Linda’s troubled soul, an incident involving her history teacher briefly becomes the centre of her attention. Mr Grierson is new in the school and is obviously trying, sometimes too hard, to be accepted and to belong to the community primarily consisting of his students. He shows Linda how unsure of himself he is by asking her for reassurance and confirmation of his status as a likable teacher. Emily Fridlund offers clues in abandon that something is wrong with Linda’s relationship to Mr Grierson and with Mr Grierson himself, and we soon find out that he has been found to hold in his possession child pornography. This condemning reality is only accentuated by a classmate’s allegations that Mr Grierson raped her, allegations that Linda believes to be false and resents her classmate, Lilly, for it.
I didn’t need to think of myself as a walleye drifting along in a current somewhere, just waiting for my hook. I was yearning for it.
The Mr Grierson storyline is used by the author as a tool that offers insight into Linda’s thinking and personality. The main plot begins when Linds meets Patra and her son Paul on the road one day and from there the story takes off to a dark place that Fridlund makes clear has a haunting ending. Patra lives with her four-ear-old son across the lake and becomes the object of Linda’s fascination in a kind of obsessive manner. She hires Linda as the babysitter but it is clear that she becomes much more than Paul’s minder. She temporarily takes Leo’s place in the family while the father is away in Hawaii and draws as much as gives companionship, protection and reassurance to Patra. It is because of the disadvantageous amount of clues and foreshadowing which Fridlund offers that we know exactly what is going on even before Linda herself does and when Leo is back from Hawaii we not only know what is going to happen in the end but also how. Even before the author brings up Paul’s death in the beginning of the book she opens her debut with quotes from Mary Baker Eddy and if that is no clue enough to warn you of the series of events that is about to follow, Fridlund’s inexperienced hand soon shows.
It seemed unfair to me that people couldn’t be something else just by working at it hard, by saying it over and over.
One can only expect so much from a first novel and in Fridlund’s case the book is not bad. She has an incredible talent at building ambience through nature very similar to the eerie, ghostly atmosphere in Claire Fuller‘s novels. It is a feeling of knowing something is very wrong, you can feel it, you can see it in the beautiful, haunting landscape of Minessota’s woods. Telling a story is a difficult undertaking though, especially a challenging one as Linda’s is. Fridlund attempts to shock and shake the readers by moving back and forth in time at what seems to be random intervals. Linda is a 37-year-old woman haunted by her passed in a relationship that she cannot allow herself to have. Linda is 15 in the eye of the storm that is gathering around her. In all that I could see what Fridlund wanted to do with her story, with her characters, the atmosphere she wanted to create. I could also watch the subtle hints she wanted to hide bursting to the surface in massive blasts that on the one hand-made for a devastating narration but on the other hand led me to expect an explosion that could have finished me off, broken my heart, shocked me, tossed me to the wolves. An explosion that lost its momentum in the excessively thrown hints. An explosion that was no longer a possibility.
Stories like History of Wolves are very much my cup of tea. I truly enjoy the disturbing sensation while reading about neurotic characters that confront me with the reality and possibilities of the human mind as a reader, and while I cannot ignore the handicaps in Fridlund’s narration, I have to praise the author for the daring novel that to me guarantees my anticipation for her second one. Her authorship can take off from here, a truly promising first novel.
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