Book Review: Wolf Winter

Thursday 26 February 2015 by

Wolf Winter, Book, Hodder & Stoughton, Cecilia EkbäckWolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Published by Hodder & Stoughton

There are six homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain.

A day’s journey away lies the empty town. It comes to life just once, in winter, when the Church summons her people through the snows. Then, even the oldest enemies will gather.

But now it is summer, and new settlers are come.

It is their two young daughters who find the dead man, not half an hour’s walk from their cottage.

The father is away. And whether stubborn, or stupid, or scared for her girls, the mother will not let it rest.

To the wife who is not concerned when her husband does not come home for three days; To the man who laughs when he hears his brother is dead; To the priest who doesn’t care;

She asks and asks her questions, digging at the secrets of the mountain.

They say a wolf made those wounds. But what wild animal cuts a body so clean?

~*~

Another one of those books that seems to be everywhere right now is the hotly anticipated Wolf Winter. So of course I had to get my hands on it.

Wolf Winter tells the story of Maija and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea as they try to survive the brutality of living on the slopes of Blackåsen Mountain. Her husband has gone to find work, leaving them to survive the perpetual dark of winter alone.

But more than that, there is a body found on the mountainside not long after they arrive, and Maija makes it her mission to uncover his killer, even when others in the community don’t want to know. But then the mountain starts to take over, and Frederika finds herself haunted by the dead man, and unknown spirits in the guise of wolves.

A blend of the mysterious with the mystery, Wolf Winter is an all-consuming read. In many respects, it reminded me of Burial Rites in its intensity and the way the landscape takes over, at once seeming so vast and yet so claustrophobic.

We follow varying viewpoints – the priest, Maija and Frederika – as they struggle to come to terms with living on the mountain, searching through their past, and trying to survive for their future. But it is Frederika’s voice, more than Maija’s, that stood out for me. It seems that she enters in to a strange relationship with Blackåsen, both haunted by it and thrilled by it, bewildered by her fear and curiosity.

This book has strong thriller-esque elements, beginning with a dead body and leading you on a merry hunt for the killer. There are red herrings and plot twists to keep even the most seasoned thriller reader guessing, but never overplays its hand, rather balancing a fine line between that and literary fiction.

It’s hard to imagine a season of darkness, and yet Ekbäck manages to make it seem both real and imagined, never deliberately pointing it out, but always having it hovering in the background like another spirit. The same goes for the mountain – it looms over the plot, always in the corner of the eye but never stared at.

In many ways, I struggled with the switching of viewpoints. Normally, this is nothing unusual, and I can go with it, but the disparity of the voices and the random leaping from one to the other occasionally made it quite confusing; never knowing who you were going to be with next meant the plotline sometimes became a bit disjointed, especially in the earlier parts when the priest is in the village and Maija and the girls are up in the mountain. But aside from that, this was a thrilling read, that old cliché of a “page-turner”. I didn’t guess once at any of the surprises, and I thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious elements of the book – the spirits and myths, and the traditional beliefs clashing with that of the Church.

I now understand why people are going mad for Wolf Winter: another Burial Rites and Station Eleven in the making, this is the reading highlight of my year so far!

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