I mentioned recently that I was reading ‘Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekbäck; well, I have finished it, and I remained gripped and engaged to the very last word – although I have to admit when I realised it was the last word I was taken by surprise.
This is how I summed it up before:
‘Wolf Winter’ is a historical novel… or is it a crime novel… or is it a ghost story, a historical thriller, a ghost thriller, a Swedish/Lapp historical crime thriller? I actually don’t really care what genre it falls into – it is a fantastic book, so well written, so strange in many ways, so interesting, thrilling, intriguing, puzzling moving… Perhaps that is what I like in a novel – forget about genre but think about strange/interesting/intriguing/puzzling/mysterious and add informative, engaging, unusual.
The story is set in Swedish Lapland at the beginning of the eighteenth century; I guess not many English readers would know very much at all about Swedish history but Ekbäck very subtly lets us understand what is happening, not by great chunks of exposition which might take us out of the narrative, but through the characters conversation, thoughts and memories. A family move from coastal finland to a mysterious mountain area in Sweden, beneath a threatening mountain, Blackåsen. One of the daughters finds the body of a man… local people say it was a bear or wolf which killed him, the wife and main character believes he was murdered. The novel follows her attempts to discover who was responsible as a wolf winter settles on the mountain – a wolf winter, a harsh and terrible winter, worse and harder than usual. Apparently ‘wolf winter’ also refers to a terrible personal crisis in someone’s life… and there is plenty of that in the lives of the characters.
So I have finished it – it’s a long book, but it didn’t flag at all, and unlike some other long books I’ve recently read I didn’t feel there were too many words, or words put in to pad it out, or words written self-indulgently by the writer as if to demonstrate what a great writer they were – no, in ‘Wolf Winter’, every word counted, every word mattered, every word was in its right place.
In many ways it was a complicated book because it was dealing with political and religious issues which I, and I guess many other readers, know nothing about. It also explored a culture, mythology and belief system (that of the Saami people, called Lapps in the novel) of which I had absolutely no previous knowledge. Ekbäck is such a skilled writer, that she enabled us to understand these different themes.
Although the end to me seemed a little abrupt, maybe it was because I was so engaged with the lives of the characters that I wanted to know what happened next to them. The end was though, totally satisfactory and the mysteries in the book were revealed, the perpetrators of various crimes were revealed and justice dispensed – although sometimes in a most subtle way.
After the end of the novel were some very helpful notes and a series of questions posed to Ekbäck in which she explained several things which I and other readers I am sure had wondered about. I know I am not the same type of writer as Ekbäck, my novels are ‘light’ compared to hers, but I do get asked questions by readers about my writing, about my books and about specifics in the novels… maybe I should have a Q&A section at the end too!