Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter begins in Swedish Lapland in June 1717, with siblings Frederika and Dorothea. The girls, fourteen and six years old respectively, make a significant discovery near their new home on isolated Blackasen Mountain – the mutilated body of a man.
The sometimes simplistic prose within Wolf Winter allows the darker passages to be incredibly vivid. On finding the body, for example, Ekback writes: ‘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’. At first, the attack is put down to the work of a bear, but things take a darker tone as the novel goes on.
The girls’ family have their own troubles. They have moved from ‘the waters of Finland’ to ‘the forests of Sweden’ in order to escape their father’s night terrors, from which he wakes up ‘soaking wet, smelling salty of seaweed and rank like fish’. Ekback demonstrates the way in which other members of the family have had to make sacrifices in order to swap their old and rather beloved way of life for their new one: ‘But inside Maija [their mother], the wind still screamed. All these things they had left behind, and yet her husband had chosen to bring his fear’.
Ekback sets the scene well in just a few words, and her imagery – particularly with regard to the natural world around her protagonists – is beautiful: ‘The morning was bright; white daylight sliced the spruce tops and stirred up too much colour’. We also learn about Frederika’s view of the place rather early on: ‘… here, nothing could be fine. The forest was too dark. There was spidery mould among the twigs and on the ground beneath the lowest branches there were still patches of snow, hollow blue’. As one might expect, given the period and the Scandinavian setting, mythology is heavily entrenched within the world of the girls; they are led to believe that trolls live in the crevices which surround their home, for example.
Wolf Winter is an easy story to get into. Whilst the premise is haunting and intriguing, there are several elements which unfortunately let the whole down. The dialogue feels far too modern for the mostpart to work, and very few of the phrases which are uttered serve to anchor the storyline as they really should do. Some of the characters are a little too shadowy, and nothing feels quite realistic after a while. The first section of the novel is interesting, but those sections which follow do not quite live up to its opening, and it feels rather uneven in consequence.