Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is a chilling and sombre coming-of age story. Fourteen-year-old Linda tells us from the offset, “winter collapsed down on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed”.[1] This succinctly sets the tone for the rest of the novel, in which warmth, energy, and love are all distinctly lacking.

Raised by well-intentioned but often absent parents in the austere climate of northern Minnesota, Linda’s story revolves around two parallel narratives. More prominent is that of her relationship with a neighbouring family whose children she babysits, as she gains access to a seemingly close and loving family for the first time. However, as the reader is told from the very beginning (the second paragraph) of the novel, the baby of the family – four-year-old Paul – is going to die. What we do not know, and what is revealed to us slowly, is how and why. Running alongside this mystery are insights into Linda’s experiences at school, including her fascination with the pretty but vapid Lily, and her fleeting attempts to seduce one of her high school teachers. In both cases Linda is firmly an outsider, and readers can’t help but pity her failed attempts to secure a source of affection and an understanding of the world around her.

The narrative structure, which switches between the young Linda and an older version of herself looking back on this period of her life, adds a layer of complexity to the typical “coming-of-age” story. Witnessing the older Linda’s attempts to grapple with her troubled childhood serves as a worthwhile reminder of the enduring effects of experiencing trauma at such a young age. Rather than a conventional teenage romance, which often features in novels of this genre, Linda suffers through twisted and often borderline abusive relationships. To see Linda then as an adult, half-heartedly engaging in a failing romantic relationship, as she remains distant from those around her, struggling to love, and to be loved, underscores the character defining nature of the events that took place over the course of one summer, and which make up the main thrust of Fridlund’s narrative.

Though she may try to convince herself otherwise, Linda is very much a fourteen-year-old child for much of the story, and her relationships with the adults around her are unsettling at best. This novel deals with child abuse in a range of relationships and scenarios. Though the narrative centres on a thrilling mystery, the moments when the pace slows and Fridlund lingers on secondary narrative threads are perhaps the most compelling and disturbing moments of the novel. Linda’s fascination with Lily, and Lily’s relationship with Mr Grierson, the girls’ history teacher, is put to particularly skilful use in highlighting Linda’s growing awareness of both her sexuality and of her own isolation. Linda’s innocent attempts to help Lily deal with her family’s financial issues, by stealing boots for her from the school “lost and found” collection, shows her attempting to build a relationship without really knowing how to do so. Similarly, her childish attempts to seduce her teacher, and her envy when Lily succeeds in gaining his attention, show us how desperately she craves affection. And, though Linda reaches out to Mr Grierson once more as an adult, this results in yet another failed attempt to forge a meaningful relationship, underscoring how the traumas of her past permeate her adult life.

Linda is an outsider: she is someone who exists as much within her own head as she does in the real world. She experiences trauma primarily because of inaction rather than action. As is so often the case, she finds herself haunted by things she did not do just as much as by the traumatic events of the novel. At the climax of History of Wolves, it is her lifetime of isolation that prevents her from being able to make the “correct” or rational decisions, which ultimately she can neither fully forget nor fully grapple with. In her own words, “It’s not that I never think about Paul. He comes to me occasionally before I’m fully awake”.[2] At moments when she is least inhibited, she remembers the events of this summer.

Regrettably, while revealing the novel’s central tragedy in the opening pages certainly sets the tone for the rest of the text, it does leave the reader anticipating a further plot twist to sustain the novel’s hold on the reader into its final pages. While the first two thirds of History of Wolves are engrossing, as the reader attempts to understand exactly what happened to Paul, once this has been revealed then the novel’s concluding few chapters lack the arresting grip of the rest of the text. That aside, the story is otherwise well-constructed, well-paced, and leaves the reader feeling the chill of Northern Minnesota in winter.

Fridlund, a native of Minnesota herself, holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Her earlier publications have been works of short fiction, and History of Wolves is her first novel. Her rich prose makes this a vivid and chilling tale. The novel is confidently, compellingly written, and Fridlund is deserving of her place on the Man Booker shortlist for this alone.

 

[1] Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017): 7

[2] Ibid: 3