(Book Review) Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

wolf winterIf, like me, you were devastated to learn that Eskimos do not, in fact, have several dozen words for snow, take solace in the fact that the Sami people of northern Scandinavia have twenty; according to Lingo, Gaston Dorren’s superlative book on European languages, the Sami use “šleätta” to describe wet, melting snow, and “lavkke” to refer to snow fallen on black ice, so smooth that reindeer hooves cannot grip it. Firstly, I am now in love with Sami punctuation. Secondly, I want to learn all these words for the next time it inexplicably snows in April here in the climatologically inclement UK.  Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter, set in the Sami region of Sweden in the early 18th century, creates a similarly expansive vocabulary to describe the coldest and least hospitable of weather conditions, although this isn’t even the most chilling aspect of the novel. Yes, you can expect more weather puns. I’m English; it’s what we do.

The novel begins with Paavo and Maija, along with their two daughters, leaving the relative comfort of their village for the frozen mountain of Blackåsen, which seems like a brilliant idea for precisely eight seconds: a happy period abruptly disrupted by their discovery of a dead body. Wolf Winter consequently creates its own genre of historical Scandi-noir-horror, as Maija, along with a mysterious priest, tries to find the murderer. Take note of the modifier “mysterious” there; everyone around Blackåsen is mysterious, wielding shady secrets and, occasionally, weapons. It’s a fun area. You can see why people want to move there. From the dodgy priest, desperately trying to reconcile the idea of the King’s divine right with the poverty of Blackåsen’s settlers, to Eriksson, the dead man, who was clearly less than a charmer in life, every character is just impenetrable enough to fascinate. Maija is something of an oddity, with her own harrowing secrets to conceal, and Ekbäck’s use of an outsider as the investigator, untrusted by the other settlers and often bewildered by her surroundings, works perfectly.

It was a dead man there in the glade.
He stared at Frederika with cloudy eyes. He lay bent. broken. His stomach was torn open, his insides on the grass violently red, stringy. Flies strutted on the gleaming surfaces. One flew into the black hole that was his mouth.
Dorotea screamed and at once it was upon her: the stench, the flies, the man’s gaping mouth.

Wolf Winter begins with two things that might put fear into the heart of any reader: a list of characters and a historical note. Do not be deterred, however; War and Peace gave me a serious phobia of character lists but Ekbäck’s creations are more than individual enough to be easily differentiated. I didn’t need to refer back to the cast list after the first few chapters. As for the introductory note, prepare to develop a serious fascination with Swedish history. I assume the reality of distribution of Sami land to Swedish settlers was, perhaps, slightly less supernaturally engaging, but Wolf Winter provides a really interesting primer on the history of a region which isn’t widely studied beyond its borders.

As a longtime hater of snow, there was a sufficient amount of precipitation-related action in Wolf Winter to give me the shivers (see, I told you my people are good with the weather humor). It’s really a very snowy read; don’t be fooled into thinking this somehow makes it festive, however, because Wolf Winter is far more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas. For one thing, Maija’s family celebrate the latter holiday by having a bath; it’s not exactly Miracle on 34th Street. Despite the incongruity of reading this book during the one day of summer my beloved country enjoyed this year, I felt truly absorbed in the battle Blackåsen’s hardy residents wage against the mountain itself, and the snow. I love to feel the setting is a character in itself, and Wolf Winter certainly delivers in that respect. And, as a bonus, I now know how to make snowshoes out of fallen twigs.

Call it whatever you like, but this mountain is getting to us, one by one. It injures us in one way or another. And when we’re weak,  it takes us.

Having been immediately frightened by the aforementioned character list, I was subsequently horrified by the following: really angry ghosts; a very vivid account of what happens to frost-bitten toes, and more than you ever really want to know about what it looks like when wolves attack a cow from behind. Structurally, Wolf Winter is sneaky; after the initial shock of the body being stumbled upon, the pace is slow–glacial, you might say, if you were desperately crowbarring in terrible puns to mitigate the bit about bovine disembowelment. Atmosphere is key here; the sense of stasis created by the lack of action on the mountain creates an almost unbearable level of tension, only exacerbated by the wild acts of violence, both natural and man-made, which follow. Don’t be fooled by the title; it’s really not the wolves that anyone needs to be worrying about.

Wolf Winter caught me by surprise. Despite the sense of foreboding created by its blurb, I was unprepared for just how creepy it was going to be, and this sense of bewilderment was oddly pleasant. I never thought I’d be grateful to live in a country where it just rains basically all the time, but I suddenly have a grudging affection for the British climate and its lack of terrifying snowstorms. Conversely, I am deeply resentful of the lack of exciting punctuation in my language and the fact that we only have 3 ways to describe snow. Aside from any of these oddly personal concerns, Wolf Winter was, for me, that rarest of things: a truly thrilling thriller, and one which I will be thrusting into the hands of friends and, maybe, strangers, once the weather gets a little chillier.

Wolf Winter is available now at GPL.

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