I seem to be reading my way through the Booker longlist, purely by coincidence, so the next book the library bought me was 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund. I was disappointed that there were no wolves. It is the story of Linda who lives with her parents in a remote lakeside cabin. Members of a former commune they tend to keep to themselves and she is something of an outsider. A young family acquire the cabin opposite and Linda is gradually drawn in by the mother and son who take up residence while the father works elsewhere. Alongside runs the story of her school life, a girl called Lily and the history teacher Mr Grierson.
It is a very intense and claustrophobic book. Linda's world is very small and she is lonely in ways I don't think even she understands, so when Patra offers her a token of friendship she grasps it with both hands. Over the months they settle into a comfortable routine, though Patra often takes her presence for granted and there remains something of a parent/babysitter relationship between them. So the story meanders between various quite discrete part of Linda's life: home life, taking care of their four dogs and preparing the fish her father catches; school life of eating her lunch in the toilet and surreptitiously following Lily around; life at the Gardners, exploring the woods with Paul and eating pancakes. It is punctuated with brief asides, references to 'the trial' and her future life that contains a housemate and a boyfriend.
I was discomfited by the relationship between Patra and Paul, it seemed strained and slightly unnatural. It was the thing that I liked about the book that she achieved this very subtly, nothing was said, nothing very particular happened, it was just there. Linda seems to like taking on a big sister role with him, sharing her love of the wildness, though sometimes awkward and unable to engage with him at his own level. You get little hints of an oppressive atmosphere in the family, but again it is not explicit. As soon as Leo arrives home though the atmosphere changes and Linda is as discomfited as I was, but she just does not know what to do about it. The references to religion and god only slip in very late in the day and it is not entirely clear what is going on, though the repeated assertion that Paul is 'fine' quickly begins to make it obvious that he isn't. She lets you know at the beginning of the story that Paul is dead, but I had initially anticipated something much more sinister. The effect of this information is also to make you want (inside your head) for things to turn out differently, you find yourself willing Linda to do something. It's like when you watch a film you have seen many times, in which something tragic happens, and you yearn each time for something to happen to save the day. Linda gives a long convoluted description of what she actually does when she walks into town to buy medicine for Paul; she knows somewhere in her mind that he is seriously ill but there is no urgency in her behaviour, as if she is desperate for someone else to take the responsibility away from her, she does not have the strength to challenge the internal dynamics of Leo and Patra's relationship.
I have a nice long quote just to give you a taste. Here Linda and Paul have been camping in the living room while Patra drove to the airport to meet Leo. It is an incident in which Linda seems more sure of herself than she does at any other point in the book, yet it is not out of character:
"Later when I woke up, I found Patra had curled up around Paul. Back to me. But I could feel her curved spine through her jacket when I pushed in closer, all those littler vertebrae linked up, all those bones laid out, like a secret. The night had come down hard, finally. Thunder was rumbling far away. Wind had kicked up waves, and they were loud enough now that I could hear them on the shore of the lake, shoving pebbles forward and back. I could hear pine needles whipping the roof of the house. I could hear Paul and Patra breathing in syncopation.
Happy, I was happy.
I barely recognised the feeling.
So who could blame me for wishing that the husband's rescheduled plane would drift into a low-lying thunderhead? That it would shunt into sudden turbulence, lose elevation fast? Who could blame me for hoping his pilot would be young and scared, that he'd turn around and fly back over the ocean? The husband had his own baby stars to watch over and his own mountains to do it from, in Hawaii. I longed for straight line winds between him and me, for hurricanes off the California coast. Downpours and lightening. The thunder was getting louder now. I felt the tent I'd built gather us in, Paul and Patra. Patra and me.
I slept and woke. I dreamed of the dogs. I dreamed of taking Patra and Paul out on the canoe, currents like underwater hands thrusting the boat around, so we had to fight to go forward. My paddle guiding us towards the shore. Or maybe guiding us away from it, maybe we were leaving after all. I slept and woke. Slept.
Eventually, just after dawn, I heard a scuffling outside. It sounded like a slow-moving mammal, a possum or raccoon, unsettling the driveway stones. ThenI heard a car door thump. Very gently I sat up and pulled the hatchet from under Paul's pillow. I unzipped the tent, tiptoed across the braided rugs, crept to the front window. There, in the driveway, in the early morning light, stood a man in a blue slicker next to a rental car. He held a brown sack of groceries, a duffel bag. He looked bland and harmless - so when he opened the door I let the hatchet hang in my hand where he could see it. And Patra was right: I could hear him think. I could hear him taking in the dark room and the tent on the floor and the tall, scrawny kid coming out from the shadows, with a good-sized weapon." (p.87-8)
So, a story that takes a sidelong look at the issue of religious based medical neglect, without somehow passing judgement on it. It was certainly an engaging and well written novel, though not I think Booker material.
And just because I wanted wolves: