Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck Review


“You have this trait... of looking for the mysterious and letting yourself be overcome.”- Wolf Winter, Cecilia Ekbäck 
‘Wolf winter,’ she said, her voice small. ‘I wanted to ask about it. You know, what it is.’
He was silent for a long time. ‘It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal,’ he said. ‘Mortal and alone.’ 

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

I'm a little obsessed with this book. I started and finished it on Saturday, and it's been on my mind ever since then. The setting, the premise, I've just been turning it around over and over in my head. 

This novel is starkly beautiful, and the most atmospheric novel I've read since Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. I discovered this book by reading Goodreads reviews, and stumbled across on reviewer who loved it. Intrigued, I clicked on the book, thought the synopsis sounded interesting, and filed it away for later. This was back in July. Then, a few weeks ago, I heard this title again in reference to Burial Rites, vaguely remembered the title and plot, said what the hell and ordered it. I don't regret it. This book was perfect for a snowy February day in New Hampshire.

The first thing I liked about this book is that we are immediately plunged into the action. This book doesn't have a lengthy preamble while we get to know the characters or get a feel for the setting. No, Wolf Winter forgoes that in favor of getting right to the main mystery. The writing is one of the first things you notice, too. It took me a bit to get myself used to Ekbäck's style, but once I did I found it suited the text perfectly. It's stark, simplistic, and even cold, mirroring the subject matter perfectly. I'm told that this is typical of Scandinavian literature, though I admit that this is my first piece of that particular branch. Unless A Man Called Ove counts, and that book is anything but cold. I first thought it to be choppy, but I'm happy this book was written the way it was. There's no sign of anything purple at all in her writing, which I appreciate. The sentences were poignant, the descriptions simple, but effective in their simplicity. I also enjoyed how this book was set up, with no actual chapters but each heading signifying the different season, with suns equalling summer, leaves equalling autumn, snowflakes for winter (the biggest part of this book), and flowers for spring. I also found myself laughing at times; it's funny in this subtle, dark kind of way.

The word I keep thinking of when I think of adjectives to describe this book is fascinating. The characters, the setting, the plot, all utterly fascinating. I couldn't stop reading because of how engrossed I was by the characters and their lives and the place they all had in common. And the Swedish history, as well as the Sami culture? Wonderful. This book reminded me why I love historical fiction. I read it for the same reason most people read fantasy, because I love getting lost in a different culture and time period. I can't fall in a fantasy world the same way I can fall in another time and place, and I fell hard for this book. 

As the plot got on, I started to get a major Twin Peaks vibe. Which is one of my favorite shows of all time, so I was down, but if you don't really like that kind of stuff, I wouldn't recommend this book. I do have some complaints, too. Nothing is really answered directly, which made some plot points confusing, and the actual mystery had a disappointing resolution. It brought my excitement down just a bit, since I kind of hoped for a more mystical resolution (something you will very rarely hear me say). The twist made sense in plot context, but I wished it was something else.

Other than that, I couldn't put this book down. I wish In the Month of the Midnight Sun was available in my country, so I could pick it up, since I want more of both this story and this setting. Alas, I can only hope it becomes available soon.

8.5-9 out of 10

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