History of Wolves is one of three debut novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Ever drawn in by a beautiful book cover, I love it when the cover fits the contents as perfectly as it does in this case. The Minnesota scenery and the small town of Loose River and its many lakes form an incredible backdrop to this novel.
Linda is fourteen, at high school, a loner. She lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake. She has no friends since the other commune inhabitants left some time before. When a family move in across the lake, she finds herself fascinated by them. Patra, the wife, is a young twenty six, childlike and immature. Her husband, Leo, is away for much of the time and Paul, her son is four years old. Linda, despite not really liking children, jumps at the chance to babysit Paul and becomes a regular visitor. From the first page we know that Paul is no longer around, and by page two Linda is clearer: he is dead.
In April, I started taking Paul for walks in the woods while his mother revised a manuscript of her husband’s research. The printed pages lay in batches around the cabin, on the countertop and under chairs. There were also stacks of books and pamphlets. I’d peeked at the titles. Predictions and Promises: Extraterrestrial Bodies. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The Necessities of Space.
“Just keep clear of the house for a few hours” were Patra’s instructions. I was given snacks in Baggies, pretzels wound into small brown bows. I was given water bottles in a blue backpack, books about trains, Handi Wipes, coloring books and crayons, suntan lotion. These went on my back. Paul went in my hand. His little fingers were damp and wiggling. But he was trusting, never once seeming to feel the shock of my skin touching his.
He wasn’t like animals. I didn’t have to win him over.
At first this novel reminded me most of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, from the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Eerie winter backdrop – tick. Small town America – tick. Loner female protagonist living in a weird family set up – tick. Newcomers who bring trouble with them – tick. As the novel drew me in, I began to feel differently, though the premise is similar. In both books the reader is drawn on because of a need to know what exactly happens, having been promised a moment of huge significance at the very start. Where I found Eileen calculating and intentionally tricksy, there is an authentic honesty to Linda’s narration.
Having read some other reviews, I do agree that the subplot involving Mr Grierson, a teacher at Linda’s school, and Lily, a fellow student, to be a bit meandering and oblique. Although the main action is set while Linda is fourteen, she tells us that she is now thirty seven, and we get snippets of her life at twenty six. Linda spots that Grierson treats Lily, widely acknowledged to be beautiful but a little odd, in a different way to the rest of the girls in class. She seems strangely drawn to both Lily and Grierson and, much later, writes to Grierson after he has moved away. I thought that her preoccupation with Grierson had a lot to do with her loneliness and a need to fit in. Just as her motivation in babysitting Paul has more to do with wanting a relationship with Patra, she wants someone to look at her the way that her teacher looks at the girl across the classroom. It is all conducted at such distance that I think this is where it lost focus a little.
The writing of this book is incredibly accomplished and beautiful. Fridlund recreates entire acres of scenery in a few words, and this is what elevates the novel from what, in other hands, could have been a rather straightforward story. I think it will struggle to make the shortlist but I have a lot more books to read yet.
See my reviews of other longlisted books here: