Rating: 4 stars
Emily Fridlund’s novel grabbed my intention when it made the Booker long list. The Booker shadow panel assembled for The Reader’s Room book review blog described it in ways that made me want to read it. I appreciate that none of them wanted to give away plot lines, but their descriptions seemed extra elliptical in a way that intrigued me.
Now that I’ve read the book, I realise that this obscure way of not giving away the plot was because the plot itself is slippery. There was something that put me in mind of Jane Campion’s storytelling in films. There was, for me, a strong sense running through the book that all of the pleasantness and normality was a veneer that had started to chip and flake, revealing hints of the reality beneath.
Fridlund uses ambiguity to good effect. Very little is as it seems. Layers are gradually peeled back, but nothing is entirely clarified for most of the book. The narrator, Linda, recounts events that happened the year she was 14 years old, intercut with things from further back in the past and things from further forward in time. As with an adult attempting conversation with an adolescent, Linda’s delivery of information is tangential, glancing off the surface of what is expected.
Linda is the child of hippy parents who live in what remains of a collapsed commune on the edge of town. Linda, then, is an outsider. Her parents are portrayed as having abdicated responsibility for protecting, educating and empowering their child. We don’t hear their perspective, though, only Linda’s, and Linda is quite rightly rejecting what her parents stand for and working out who she is while still wanting boundaries. She’s a teenager.
Linda’s attempts to define herself begin with a teacher at school and another girl in her class, Lily. The teacher indulges in some fairly adolescent flirting with Lily, drawing attention to her and poking fun at her. Linda attempts to sympathise with her, but doesn’t know why, or understand that the impulse might be jealousy because she wants the teacher’s attention for herself, or perhaps wants Lily’s attention.
A young mother takes up residence in a summer house across the lake from Linda’s home, bringing her four year old son with her. Linda starts to help out with childcare. A comment at the very start of the book sets up a tension in her relationship with the child for the reader from the off. The mother is part adult, part child, and holds a fascination for Linda. It’s almost like she’s a missing link in the process of evolution. There is something familiar about her and yet mystifying to Linda.
The child, Paul, is also a curiosity. For the most part he is as inquisitive, inventive and wilful as any four year old, but at others he is old beyond his years. It isn’t clear whether this is fact, or simply Linda’s rendering of him. Given that Paul’s home life is unusual, tutored as he is by his father in the thoughts and attitudes he believes to be true, and as much abandoned by his mother as he is adored, either one is possible.
Parent-child relationships run through the novel. Linda’s commune parents shared parenting responsibility when the commune was in existence and encouraged Linda’s entry into the world of being a useful member of the community from a very early age, with the result that, by the time the commune has collapsed, she is detached from them and exercises a lot of personal freedom without necessarily knowing it. It leaves her rootless and unwilling to commit as an adult. Lily’s family circumstance is referred to in passing, and hovers in the background with a nagging suspicion about what is really going on in her life that Linda, as a teenage narrator, can’t bring into focus. Paul, meanwhile, is part experimental project, part plaything for his parents. He only seems like a child when we see him in relation to Linda, through the prism of their interactions and the similarities that persist in the behaviour of the very young and the not quite adult.
I think Fridlund was attempting something around Linda’s and the young mother’s names. Linda is also known as Matilda and Mattie, and the young mother who befriends her is Patra, but also Cleopatra and Cleo, Pattie and Pea. It’s possible that the reader is supposed to infer that both have chosen their own diminutive as a means of owning their identity, although in Patra’s case that doesn’t quite work. Linda chooses her name in opposition to the names other people give her. Patra’s choice could be interpreted as a means of not opposing her husband.
Another obscure element of the book that I struggled with a little bit is the title and how it relates to the story. Linda has an interest in wolves. She writes her History Odyssey paper on them, calling it A History of Wolves, and in later life has her boyfriend quiz her on their habits. But why? Is it allegory about how she feels? Is it allegory for the behaviour of Paul’s parents, or maybe Linda’s parents? Is it a straightforward teenage fascination with wolves because they are shadowy and unknowable? Does the misconception of ‘lone wolves’ and ‘alpha males’ play into it? Or the evidence in studies of wolf behaviour that shows they are pack animals and leadership changes according to need? I struggled because I like clarity, but I also enjoyed the ambiguity because it reminded me of being a teenager and the significance I used to give to things because it made me feel unique, separate from my family, unexpected. That’s what I liked most about this book, beyond the eloquent descriptions and finely honed prose that feels instinctive rather than crafted, that Fridlund captures the inner world of a teenager and amplifies it by placing Linda in a place of isolation that carries forward into her adult life.