Title – Wolf Winter
Author – Cecilia Ekbäck
Published – February 2015
Genre – Crime fiction
This is a debut which is getting a lot of praise (and rightly so) on twitter from shivering readers who are suffering from the chilling effects of Ekbäck’s atmospheric writing. Although Swedish by birth it is written in English and set in Swedish Lapland of 1717. It has the setting of a great scandi or nordic drama, but the writing flows in a way that would be unusual in a translation.
The story is that of a family who have moved to a remote settlement in the shadow of Blackasen Mountain. They are Finns who have traded their home with that of their uncle in the hope of a fresh start. Soon after their arrival the elder daughter, fourteen-year-old Frederika, discovers a body in a glade when she’s taking their goats to graze. The body has been mutilated and the settlers are quick to blame wolves for the death, but Frederika’s mother, Maija, believes it was murder.
The premise is one of an amateur detective (initially Maija) and a small pool of suspects (the other settlers in the community) but the story is so much more than that. Maija is new to the country and is an outsider in a time where suspicion, especially of the supernatural, can have dire consequences. The other outsiders are the Lapps, forced to toe the line by the government, they are unwilling neighbours who have had to suppress their traditions. The area is controlled by the Church and the local priest has his own agenda, but is ordered by his Bishop to resolve the death as quickly as possible.
There are some explanations about Maija and her family’s past and some things that are only hinted at, but they aren’t the only ones looking to escape and soon it seems that all their neighbours have something to hide. Early on in the book a simple solution seems to become apparent, but the story has a multitude of layers.
The story is told using several voices, mostly divided between Maija and Frederika. For me Maija is the star – intelligent, pragmatic, determined, and tough on the outside, but internally she’s conflicted. She has no-one to rely on but herself and there is an aspect of the book that makes this a story about her survival.
I know nothing of the period and Ekbäck draws the background in bold strokes, but puts her efforts into the detailed description of the conditions in which the settlers must survive. It’s beautifully written and it was impossible to read the evocative descriptions of the conditions without shivering in sympathy with the characters. There are some supernatural elements, which I’m not normally a fan of, but in this remote and harsh location, and in this period, it feels more credible. These elements help to move the story along but also help to raise the tension.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this and Burial Rites (which I also loved) and this left me feeling equally sad at the end. Many thanks to the publisher for the copy via bookbridgr. You can see other points of view on Northern Crime and For Winter Nights.