Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund

I love wolves, and that was the first thing that drew me to History of Wolves. Although Emily Fridlund's novel doesn't actually centre around wolves, what attracts me to them is what also ended up tying me to the novel. This is also one of those novels who is done a slight disservice by a book's need for a blurb. I wrestled over whether to include one or not and decided yes, in the end, but truly there is much more to this book than could be encapsulated in a paragraph or two. Despite this, I will attempt to write down my own thoughts in the few paragraphs below. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/01/2017
Publisher: Grove Atlantic

Fourteen-year-old Madeline lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Madeline is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Madeline as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong. 
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Madeline finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Madeline makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Madeline confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.
As I said above, it is difficult, and sometimes close to impossible, to describe certain books. On the one hand History of Wolves is a novel about a young girl growing up, on the other hand it is a novel about the crimes we commit against one another. But you'll need more than two hands to describe this novel, because it's also about emotional isolation, trauma, Christian Science, and so much more. Set in the isolated regions of northern Minnesota, History of Wolves is Madeline's attempt at sorting out her past, present and future. The little decisions we all make daily can have a major impact and that terrifying fact is what History of Wolves dissects. It doesn't always make for a comfortable read, just like Madeline isn't always a likeable main character. But then, no one is perfect and that is the crux of the matter. The discovery of self and the changing of the self is a theme many novels have dedicated themselves to, but not many manage to capture all its facets. History of Wolves is at times beautiful, haunting, terrifying and intense, just like life.

Running through the novel is the theme of wolves, of hunters and prey, strength and weakness. Each of these expresses itself differently. Madline is a predator in her own way, involving herself in the lives of others, stalking them and looking for signs of emotion and warmth. Similarly, Mr. Grierson and many other characters in the book are both incredibly in the wrong and yet sympathetic in how they themselves are victims in one way or another. It makes for a difficult read because we'd all like to rather see the world in black and white, with clear cut heroes and villains, and a morality without questions. History of Wolves is also a novel about love and warmth, about how desperately we humans crave closeness and affection, and will look for it from whichever source, even if we know it's the wrong source. There is also a sense in which the anger we show to others comes back to ourselves. We try to paint them as the aggressors, yet have to face we ourselves are also both victim and aggressor. I like books that come too close for comfort, it makes me face myself, but it's not for everyone. And some days it isn't even for me.

The timeline of History of Wolves jumps around a lot. Seemingly written in hindsight, Fridlund repeatedly takes you back to Madeline's teenage years, before yanking you on to her early childhood, and then onward to her mid-twenties. On the one hand this can get confusing, yet on the other hand it also captures very accurately how memories work. They are disjointed, bring together stories that seem utterly random yet are strangely connected, and throw a fog over the parts of our lives we'd rather forget. It creates a strange atmosphere in the novel which makes it seem slightly detached, and this spreads also to the characters. Although everyone is living, hardly any seem really alive, only going through the motions of every day. This even finds its reflection in the names of the characters. Madeline is referred to as Linda, Madeline and Mattie, occasionally making you question if we truly still are reading about the same girl. And I guess the question is, are we? Do things happen to us that change us irrevocably as people, that disconnect us from who we were before? And what do we do when we find ourselves isolated from our past? History of Wolves throws up a lot of questions and leaves them hanging for you to answer for yourself.

Fridlund's writing is stunning. I adored her descriptions of Minnesota's landscape, how she captures the changing seasons, the vitality of nature and the sheer power of it all. Nature becomes almost like a character in History of Wolves, affecting the characters as much as they do each other. Fridlund also manages to make much explicit without spelling it out. Especially when it comes to her characters' emotions and thoughts, Fridlund gives the smallest motion meaning. Without delving too deeply into Madeline's time at the commune, we can guess at the impact this has had on her. Although Fridlund doesn't spend a lot of time at Madeline's high school, we can tell it's not the best of places for her. I was continuously amazed at how much Fridlund managed to pack into History of Wolves. Although occasionally the narrative perhaps strays a bit, Fridlund always manages to reign it back in. By staying true to Madeline's voice, she doesn't follow every story to its full completion as it loses its relevance to her, yet the novel is filled with stories and moments and observations. The fact History of Wolves is Fridlund's debut novel makes it all the more impressive and personally I cannot wait to read her next book.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

History of Wolves is a stunning novel which I will definitely be rereading numerous times. Although not perfect, there is so much to admire in Fridlund's novel that the occasional confusion is all but forgotten. History of Wolves is a novel to get lost in and a novel in which you have to try to find yourself nonetheless. I'd recommend this to fans of literary fiction and coming-of-age novels.

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