Set in Swedish Lappland in 1717, Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel Wolf Winter follows a family of four, Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea from a fishing village in their native Finland to the forested lands surrounding Sweden’s Blackåsen mountain.
They swap houses with Maija’s brother, deciding a life in the interior may be better suited to Paavo, who had developed numerous fears keeping him from earning his living at sea. However, when their daughters stumble across a dead body allegedly killed by wolves, on a route near the mountain, they begin to wonder whether they have left one dark dream for an even blacker nightmare.
Maiji suspects it was a crime and makes it her business to ask questions to an extremely reticent and unappreciative band of local settlers and itinerant Lapps. Her husband never questions her interference, even when present he plays no role and as soon as the first signs herald the approach of winter, he sets off alone for the coast, leaving the women-folk to survive the harsh physical elements and the even stranger mystical apparitions that some but not all will witness. Without a man to steer them out of trouble, the woman face many risks, not least being perceived as dabbling in witchcraft, as church records show has happened to a few others with similar inclinations who preceded them.
There is a new priest in town whom Maiji spends a few evenings shovelling snow with, holed up in her cabin, and the widow of the previous priest, who seems to know more than she is willing to pass on, brothers who steal wives, wolves whom some see and not others, and a teacher whose presence seems to awaken the angry ghosts of the departed.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into this novel in the way I wanted to, though it wasn’t a difficult read. It didn’t portray a sense of the era, it felt contemporary even though it did evoke a strong sense of place and it was clear there were no modern comforts. Perhaps it was the attitude and freedom of the protagonist that didn’t sit with the era.
The time spent with a number of the characters was so fleeting, it left too little of an impact and rendered them insufficient to develop an interest in. The storyline itself raised so many questions that went unanswered, like why did the husband go off and leave his family in such a vulnerable position when they could have gone with him and been protected. And why did the wife think she as a newcomer could become an investigator into a crime that clearly the locals were not happy about being questioned, especially when it threatened her safety. Her role was to assist in bringing new life (she was a kind of midwife) and yet at every turn she was endangering those close to her. The younger daughter nearly lost her feet to frostbite after trekking in a blizzard to ask the Lapps questions about the murder. I didn’t believe in Maiji’s intentions and relationships and the blurred line between reality and the mystical elements. I wanted to be drawn in by it, but was unable to brush off the scepticism.
So what drew me towards reading this novel in the first place?
Well the snowy winter setting was very appealing, the plot sounded intriguing and the praise of Hilary Mantel and the Library Journal, who had this to say definitely lured me in:
“The novel will appeal to readers who like their historical fiction dark and atmospheric, or mystery fans who are open to mysticism and unconventional sleuths. Readers who enjoyed the winter landscape and magical realism of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child may also want to try this.” Library Journal
“The story creeps up and possesses the imagination; there’s something eerie in the way half-understood and only half-seen events leave their mark. It’s a powerful feat of suggestion, visually acute, skillfully written; it won’t easily erase its tracks in the reader’s mind.” Hilary Mantel
It was an interesting concept and disappointing that it wasn’t more engaging, but for those who like a good mystery with an element of hinted at magical realism, this could be just what Hilary Mantel suggests it is.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly made available in e-book format from the publisher via NetGalley.