Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake in the beautiful, austere backwoods of Northern Minnesota. Isolated at home and an outsider at school, she is mostly left to her own devices. So when a young family – mother, father and little boy Paul – move into the cabin across the lake, Linda insinuates her way into their orbit. Yet something isn’t right. Drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand, Linda must make a choice that will affect the rest of her life…
First published: 2017
I didn’t have any expectations for History of Wolves before going in, apart from thinking it must have at least some literary merit, since it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This novel was a birthday gift from my parents in that same year, and in the three-and-a-half years since, I haven’t heard anyone talking about it, so I had nothing to go on apart from that nomination. I have to admit that I kept forgetting about this book, which is also the reason why I put it on my list of 10 books I “have” to read in 2021. A few weeks ago, the urge to read it crept up on me, and I dived right in. The verdict: I loved it.
One of the things that stood out to me most about History of Wolves is its structure. The main story focuses on Linda as she’s fourteen years old, but this story is actually told by Linda as she’s in her thirties. The bulk of it takes place in the past, but the narrative is structured in such a way that it’s very clear that we’re dealing with memories here. There’s an associative nature to it: as Linda is recounting the main story, something will jog her memory, and we go off on a tangent about her parents, or something that happened in school, for example. It made for a very dynamic reading experience, and while it could’ve been messy, it didn’t feel that way to me at all.
The way in which the story is structured also creates a lot of suspense: right at the start of the novel, Linda reveals that this story revolves around something very bad that happened when she was fourteen. As the reader, you know what is going to happen, but you have no idea how or why it happened. This is what kept me on the edge of my seat throughout this novel, because this knowledge gives scenes that seem happy and warm on the surface an eerie, dangerous vibe, which only grows stronger until the climax of the story. Although History of Wolves is a rather slow-paced, mellow novel, this suspense made it an exciting read nonetheless.
Apart from the suspense, the atmospheric writing style also kept me fully engaged with the story. There are a lot of descriptions of nature in History of Wolves, as Linda lives in a wooded area beside a lake and she often strikes out on her own, either through the woods or in her canoe. Although her home is partly what has made her so isolated, she loves her surroundings and she pays close attention to the way everything around her changes as the seasons come and go. I loved this aspect of the story and it is also what made me want to take it slow while reading this novel. I wanted to absorb everything and really feel as if I was by this Minnesotan lake myself.
Although I loved this novel, there is one aspect that made me feel pretty uncomfortable. The majority of the book focuses on Linda’s relationship with this young family, but there’s also a small subplot about an inappropriate teacher and a girl who falsely accuses him of sexual abuse. I’m not going to go into detail about it, but I felt very iffy about this storyline. Women who speak out about sexual abuse are often accused of lying, but the truth is that false accusations happen much less frequently than we are made to believe. Seeing it thrown into this story so casually, without it even contributing much to the plot or being resolved in a satisfying way, made me uncomfortable. Storylines like that perpetuate the untrue idea that false accusations happen a lot, and I was sad to see it in a novel I otherwise really loved.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading History of Wolves and I’m glad I put it on my list of 10 books to read in 2021. It’s a very well-crafted story that kept me interested throughout, so I definitely recommend reading it!