Review: Wolf Winter, Cecilia Ekbäck

Wolf Winter is Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel and she has created a haunting tale of mystery and darkness that leaves a powerful and lasting impression in its wake.  Set in 1717 amidst the wilds of wintry Swedish Lapland, this is Nordic-Noir of the highest quality.  Fans of Burial Rites are sure to enjoy this novel which delves into a world not only rendered shadowy by winter but also by the secrets which lurk all too close to the surface in the murky world of Blackasen Mountain.  Maija arrives with her husband Paavo and two daughters Frederika and Dorotea, they are a family determined to make a fresh start but in seeking to leave  astheir own difficulties behind, they find they have wandered into a place far more troubled than they could possibly have imagined.

As well Burial Rites, Ekbäck’s novel is also reminiscent of Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence and similarly recalled themes of The Tenderness of Wolves.  With prose of rare grace, there is a sense of a mystery slowly unfolding its limbs, abandoned by Paavo, Maija and her daughters find themselves in the midst of a sprawling physical landscape which contrasts with a community which is incredibly claustrophobic.  Isolated and alone in a world governed by the laws of the church which have little to do with justice, the savage death of local man Erikson appears to go unmourned.  His wife thought nothing of it that he was gone for three days.  His brother laughs in delight at the news.  The priest is wary and certainly not unhappy.  But Maija is the woman who cannot let it lie.  If it were really a wolf that did that to the man, the wounds would not be so clean.

The Lapps explain that the term ‘wolf winter’ refers to the coming of a winter of unparalleled cruelty and one that reminds us that we are ‘mortal and and alone.’  The icy grip of the season tightens on the people of Blackasen, tempers shorten and suspicion grows as it becomes clear that everyone has something to hide.  It was interesting to read in the afterword that Ekbäck had drafted the book four times, once set in 2005, another in 1930, then in 1865 before finally settling with 1717 – the attitudes and conflicts of Wolf Winter are by no means unique to the era.

Cecilia Ekbäck

In the background to Maija’s family lurks the memory of her grandmother Jutta, now dead but still alive to Maija’s fourteen year-old daughter Frederika who is still deciding exactly what she believes.  There is a distinct other-worldly feel to Wolf Winter, the characters have been told to expect a winter that will challenge them and indeed the season itself is an antagonist.  Wolf Winter also seemed to be a novel with a strong theme of silence; not only were there secrets and lies being told but also Blackasen really came across as a quiet place full of people who were not in the mood to talk.  I am always impressed by a writer who can convey silence well – books are so reliant on words, words, words but Wolf Winter has a set of characters isolated from one another and also from their own selves.  It has a real dream-like quality and not just because of the spirits lurking in the background.

Ekbäck summons up the cruelty of winter; one character is beset by cabin fever – entering her home, the others find four little corpses and a loaded gun.  A long journey in the snow leaves a child’s feet beset by frost-bite and her screams of agony seem to vibrate from the page.  As promised, the wolf winter does reinforce the sense of loneliness, the importance of self-knowledge and self-reliance.  Early in the novel, Ekbäck comments via her characters on the thoughts that cannot be banished but as she concludes, we know that not everything that has come to pass will be spoken of.  Sometimes we have to be satisfied with privately knowing what has to be publicly concealed.

This was a self-assured and accomplished début novel; Ekbäck’s prose was stunning with numerous phrases that stuck in the mind after the finale.  I felt as though these were characters caught at a moment in time – there were loose plot strands that were never explained and I was left wondering what would become of them all afterwards but none of that made the book feel unfinished.  Indeed, Wolf Winter was a novel of extraordinary grace, not just in its phrasing but in the feel it had for its characters who all wrestled with their faith and their sense of belonging.  I wished a peaceful spring for Maija and her daughters and that the priest would find his way – for the rest, I wished them what they deserved.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
Published by Hachette UK on February 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers, Suspense, Mystery & Detective, General
Pages: 416
ISBN: 9781444789539

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