‘History of Wolves’ by Emily Fridlund (review)

I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Critics have seen much in Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, an incredible achievement for a first novel. It has been described as ‘a beautiful literary work’ (BBC Radio 4) and ‘one of the most intelligent and poetic novels of the year’ (New Statesman). Fridlund is said to have created ‘a page turner of craft and calibration’ (New York Times Book Review) and to have done ‘a remarkable job transcending genres without sacrificing the suspense that builds steadily in the book’ (NPR). I see a novel that falls squarely into the bildungsroman and country noir genres, written by an author with fine poetic instincts, but considerable issues of pacing and characterisation. The novel is intelligent, but not remarkably so; unique, but not to the point of transcendence; gripping, but not gripping enough to be a page turner… in other words, History of Wolves is a typical first novel, and I have no idea how it gets off being nominated for the Booker Prize.

Fourteen-year-old Linda lives in a rundown cabin on the edge of a lake in northern Minnesota. The child of religiously-eccentric parents who used to be part of a ‘commune’ in the area, Linda is called “Freak” and ostracised at school. Her natural talent for adolescent angst leads to a desperate desire to belong that manifests itself in a number of disturbing ways, such as her unhealthy interest in her new history teacher’s affair with a classmate. This plot line repeatedly pops up in the novel for no good reason that I can divine.

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Artwork by Mary Cauffman

When Linda isn’t devoting an inordinate quantity of time to imagining what her teacher sexually assaulting someone would look like and feel like, she’s hanging out with the family that moves in across the lake with their four-year-old son, Paul. Linda sees these out-of-towners as the very embodiment of elegance and sophistication. They have wealth that she has never encountered, and come from a world that is so foreign to her that it might as well be another galaxy. More importantly, however, Linda sees this family as her chance to fit in, and to catch a glimpse of the family life that she will never have. The possibility of belonging somewhere outweighs Linda’s powerful sense of unease about the young couple and their odd son, and ultimately leads her to steadfastly ignore all the glaring warning signs that present themselves before it is revealed that Paul’s parents, Patra and Leo, are creepy Christian Scientists with very odd ideas about modern medicine’s effect on children.

You see where this is going.

Fridlund’s command of language and her ability to render it poetic constitutes the novel’s biggest strength and makes some passages a true pleasure to read. Her comments on the beauty of nature and how it solaces Linda’s solitude are lovely, and the character’s insistence on hanging about on dark, pseudo-Teutonic lakes beneath the open sky are reminiscent of Frankenstein and The Secret History. The novel is also timely in terms of its portrayal of the tragic consequences of the Christian Scientist belief that not thinking about bad things prevents bad things from happening. Living as we do in an age when a very significant minority of people continues to believe that praying for a sick child is more effective than taking them to hospital, we need more books like this if we are to make a dent in the coffin loads of dead children that inevitably result from such stupidity. So History of Wolves is not a bad book, and in some places, it shows signs of being a good one. Unfortunately, there’s simply too much other stuff going on this novel for the good things about it to outweigh the bad.

The characters in History of Wolves are straw dolls with empty eyes, and I can’t decide if this is deliberate or not. Is this non-existent characterisation intended to universalise the story, or to serve as a metaphor for the emptiness of life? If so, it doesn’t really work. Linda’s deadpan behaviour, strange obsessions and burgeoning sexuality never succeed in being more than tiresome. Paul is a standard odd child who commands none of the fascination of Francis from The Essex Serpent or Liza from The Quick, making it difficult to care what happens to him. Leo, religious-fanatic-in-chief, is meant to be intimidating, but induces no stronger reaction than a yawn, and Patra’s glassy-eyed refusal to perceive the truth does not even provoke the desire to slap her.

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Then there’s the matter of pacing. Mozart once said that ‘the music is not in the notes, but in the silence in-between’. In History of Wolves, the opposite is true. There is music in the (scarce) major incidents in the novel, but the bits in between drag so endlessly that you find yourself wondering, in a disinterested kind of way, not what is going to happen, but when something is actually going to happen. That’s not to say that long spells of plotlessness are a bad thing. Nothingness can be rewarding if the writing is so good that you don’t mind spending time in it, but there’s a difference between that kind of writing and the kind of writing that simply drags. In the light of this fact, I’m afraid I don’t understand how the NPR can say that there is ‘a steady building of suspense’ in History of Wolves. In my humble opinion, Fridlund doesn’t seem to have much idea of what suspense actually is.

The author of History of Wolves is going to be a big star one day. This might seem contradictory if one considers the fact that she is technically a big star now. But all of this Booker shortlist hype has come too soon, and before Fridlund has had time to write the book she could have written had she taken a bit more time to develop. Fridlund is a good writer, but she is not yet a good novelist, and the next book she writes should stay in her head a little longer than this one did.

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