Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Wolf WinterShe glanced to her right. A figure. Motionless. It took a step forward and she almost screamed.

She swallowed. “I was going to…”

Antti was silent. She couldn’t see his eyes, only the straight line of his nose.

“I just wanted to ask…”

He still didn’t say anything.

“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.”

Set in Lapland in the early 18th century, Wolf Winter is an ethereal historical fantasy which embraces the full force of a Swedish winter. The atmosphere, like the landscape, is bleak. Ekbäck’s writing is slow and ponderous, deliberately so: there are times when turning the pages feels like shuffling through deep snowdrifts, adding to the sense that we are enduring a harsh winter along with the characters. All in all, the scene is as evocative as a painting.

Maija and Paavo move to Blackåsen with their two daughters, looking to make a new life for themselves in a tiny settlement deep in Swedish Lapland. They’ve barely arrived when the girls discover a body on the mountainside, a man brutally slaughtered. The locals blame it on a bear attack, but Maija isn’t convinced, and the local priest also harbours doubts.

Maija’s elder daughter, Frederika, is arguably the most interesting character in the book. From the moment she finds Eriksson’s body, the mountain seems to speak to her, and she starts to see Eriksson’s spirit. The fantastical elements of the novel are slight, at first, becoming more pronounced as the narrative progresses — and as Frederika grows into her abilities. She’s drawn to the Lapps who pass through the settlement, hoping they can help her, although they claim to have foregone their ancestral ways in favour of Christianity.

The initial murder is far from the most dismal moment in this narrative, yet the characters are so practiced in their stoicism that almost no-one seems distressed by even the worst of crimes. I couldn’t quite decide whether this was a realistic response to the pressures of life under such harsh conditions, or a troubling lack of empathy in the characters. I found the book utterly absorbing, but it was slow going, and very challenging in places.

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