Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

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Reviewed by Harriet

Cecilia Ekbäck’s impressive debut novel has been described as Nordic noir, but I think that’s a bit too neat a pigeonhole. Nordic it certainly is, being set in the northernmost part of Sweden, which is now known as Swedish Lapland. Noir? Well, yes, there are dark deeds and secrets to be uncovered, but there’s a strong dash of the supernatural running through the novel, which lifts it onto a different and more interesting level.

A remote place, then, but a remote time too. Wolf Winter takes place in 1717, an era when this sparsely inhabited area was still being populated by settlers from nearby Sweden, Norway and Finland. The family who are central to the plot have just moved from Finland when the novel begins: they are Paavo, a fisherman who has developed a terror of the sea, his wife Maija, and their two daughters, fourteen-year-old Frederika and six-year-old Dorotea. Paavo quickly disappears from the story, off to find work to support the family, who are left to struggle through the coming winter as best they can. If they thought it was going to be easy, even tolerable, they are quickly disabused. Only days after their arrival, Frederika and Dorotea stumble on the mutilated corpse of a fellow settler, Erikkson. While everyone is quick to blame his death on wolves, Maija at once recognises that his wounds have been made with a knife. It’s clear that the locals know much more than they are prepared to say, and Maija and Frederika are determined to find out the truth. Further mysteries soon surface. Why does the dead man’s brother laugh when he hears of Erikkson’s murder? What has caused the deaths of Erikkson’s wife and two children? And is there a connection to the unexplained disappearances of several children from the community over the past few years?

Though the opening chapters of the novel take place in June, the summer is short-lived, and before long the area is wrapped in snow as the long dark winter descends. At the best of times there are less than four hours of daylight, and this winter is a particularly harsh one – a ‘wolf winter’ indeed, as a Swedish saying has it. The hardships suffered by the family are almost unimaginable – there’s a long passage of time when they and the local priest are trapped inside the house by a heavy fall of snow, only able to make occasional dangerous forays to the woodshed or the food store to keep them all alive. Little Dorotea gets frostbite and may never be able to walk again, and Maija and the priest are forced to construct primitive snowshoes out of pine branches to stop them sinking immovably deep under the snow.

The atmosphere of time and place, then, are wonderfully evoked, as is the strangely intermingled society of native Laplanders and incomers of all kinds. The hardships of life in an area of forests and barren land, brooded over by the sinister Blackåsen mountain, the unspoken feuds between neighbours, the rumours of war and the possibility of conscription, make this is frightening and uncomfortable place to live. Over Christmas, everyone converges from their far-flung settlements on the nearby town, where the fiercely Lutheran church struggles to combat the ancient beliefs and superstitions still rife in the area. Or are they superstitions? Maija narrowly escapes being savaged by a pack of wolves, though nobody else has seen or heard them. Frederika, who like her mother is desperate to discover the truth behind Erikkson’s murder, has frequent and terrifying encounters with the dead man, who even manages to cut her arm with a knife, leaving a wound which simply will not heal.

There’s so much to enjoy here. On one level it’s a traditional crime story, with false starts and red herrings, and the motive and the identity of the perpetrator revealed only at the very end. Then there’s what can only be described as the element of magic realism, which objectifies the deeply-held beliefs of the Lapland natives and which lends an important underlying theme to the novel: the clash of cultures between the old mythology and the harsh, repressive Christianity imposed by the King and the church. And of course there are the characters and their relationships. Maija and the priest, both harbouring the secrets of their own pasts, initially suspicious of each other, are slowly drawn together by deep feelings that can never be fully acted on. As for Maija and Frederika, theirs is a convincingly complicated mother and daughter relationship, exacerbated by the very different ways they each view the world and the events that surround them.

All this is conveyed in often lush, evocative prose with vivid and telling descriptions of the landscape, its weather and its inhabitants. I learned a great deal about the history and geography of a place I knew little or nothing about, and enjoyed the mysteries and the strange, brooding atmosphere. Great stuff.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

You can also read an interview with Cecilia Ekbäck in our BookBuzz section – click here.

Cecilia Ekbäck, Wolf Winter (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2015). 978-1444789515, 432 pp., hardback.

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