History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.
History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. PHOTOS: WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON

Mention "wolves" and you might think of the carnivorous pack animal. But there is also the "lone wolf", or outsider who finds himself shunned by the pack.

Wolves are clearly the spirit animal for Madeline, the protagonist of the poetic Man Booker-shortlisted History Of Wolves by debut author Emily Fridlund.

Madeline's family are the last survivors of a failed cult and they live in an abandoned rural commune deep in the woods in the American Midwest. Her childhood friend moved away, her parents prefer laissez-faire supervision and in school, she is ostracised for looking different.

This confluence of factors contributes to her almost feral craving for company as she struggles with her identity and growing pains. It makes her almost an unreliable narrator as her monologue is clouded by her preconceptions - and misconceptions - of the world around her.

Pervasive throughout the wintry coming-of-age novel is a chilling, haunting sense of foreboding that the reader can never quite shake off. Metaphorical wolves lurk throughout the novel as Fridlund explores relationships between the predator and unsuspecting prey from Madeline's point of view.

Is Lily, the prettiest girl in class, in bed with the socially awkward new teacher, Mr Grierson, who has a paedophilic past and was forced to relocate to the snowy town from sunny California? Did Patra, the friendly young mother who moved in across the lake, engage her as a babysitter for her young son Paul because she craves her company?

  • FICTION

  • HISTORY OF WOLVES

    By Emily Fridlund Weidenfeld & Nicolson/ Paperback/ 275 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5 stars

Madeline, also referred to as Linda, Mattie, "freak", "Governess" and simply "the babysitter", is the connecting thread between the two story lines. Such is her nebulous and malleable identity.

We know from as early as Page 2 that Paul will die from a chronic illness and that there is an ongoing criminal trial against Patra and her husband Leo, religious zealots disbelieving of medicine.

Madeline's complicity - by virtue of the fact that she did nothing to stop the tragedy - is stark. She realises, in hindsight, that there is something amiss with the couple, and that she might have suppressed her doubts over them as doing otherwise would have cost her the only friends she has.

"Maybe if I'd been someone else I'd see it differently. But isn't that the crux of the problem? Wouldn't we all act differently if we were someone else?" Fridlund writes as she implicates the reader as well.

The novel is at times frustrating - Madeline is flawed and Fridlund did not set out to make her likeable - while the big reveal occurs in the first few pages. The pay-off, as the novel unfurls towards its inevitable end, lies in how Fridlund lures the reader in with her exquisitely nuanced, psychological look into a troubled, neurotic mind.

But this also means readers who prefer more action-packed drama might want to look elsewhere.

If you like this, read: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. (2001, HarperCollins, Books Kinokuniya, $24.60). Set during World War II, the Pulitzer Prize-winning title is a coming-of-age tale about two Jewish cousins - Sammy "Clay" Klayman, an American, and Josef Kavalier, a Czech refugee from the brutal Nazi regime - as they pursue their dreams of becoming comic artists.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'History Of Wolves by Emily Fridlund'. Print Edition | Subscribe