My experience of reading “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund was different from how I read most novels. I read the entire book aloud to my boyfriend while we were on a recent road trip around New England. He prefers to drive and I enjoy the benefits of being the passenger who gets to choose the music and snack idly while looking out the window. But I also enjoy the experience of reading aloud for the way it makes reading a more communal experience. I always find the humour buried in the prose of so-called “literary fiction” is heightened when read aloud like watching a comedy film in a movie theatre rather than sitting on your own. This is a novel about quite bleak subjects. Narrator Linda reflects on two striking cases from her teenage years. Firstly, her teacher Mr Grierson was put on trial and accused of having sexual relations with a student. Secondly, a four-year old boy named Paul she babysat died under suspicious circumstances. Linda obsessively mulls over the details of these cases and her involvement surrounding them, but her sardonic perspective took on a funny edge while I read her narrative aloud. So, while some people’s responses have criticised Linda as being too unlikeable, I often found her really engaging and fascinating.
It’s also been remarked by some reviewers how Fridlund’s writing bears similarities to that of the great writer Marilynne Robinson. There’s a certain way in which she writes detailed observations in her scenes through one character's perspective that captures everything from the natural environment to other characters’ physicality. In doing so, she gets at the complex psychology of the people involved without ever actually going into their consciousness. But, you feel like you understand them completely and understand the dynamics of the situation because you are so thoroughly rooted in the narrator’s unflinching gaze. This is especially true in this novel when Linda recalls the final days leading to Paul’s death and the actions and dialogue of his parents. There’s also a strong distinction Linda draws between the way she recalls things and the way they are presented in trials.
This creates a complex picture prompting questions about what is really true. It also asks things like: What’s our subjective experience vs what we imagine to have happened? What is morally right vs what is legally right? What happens when freedom of belief impinges upon the safety and livelihood of other people? Linda seems determined to settle answers for these questions, but poignantly considers how “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened… Though they end the same way, these are not the same story. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?” She’s so thoroughly entrenched in her own understanding of the past that it’s as if the subjective and objective are fused into one.
In some particulars of these two cases she was the only witness to certain events and was the only one to interact with the people involved. But, of course, her point of view is inflected with her own prejudices and emotions so the reader is left wondering how that has coloured her view of the past. Linda was an outcast through much of her childhood as she was the child of the only remaining members of a religious intentional community that petered out by the time she became a teenager. Her determination to attach herself to Paul’s mother Patra and create a secret bond with Mr Grierson feels quite poignant considering how much she loathed her counter-culture parents and all they embodied. This can’t be discounted when considering Linda’s recollections, yet she seems to be insisting her memory is the only real truth.
Some will no doubt find “History of Wolves” frustrating for its relentless plodding through detail like a court case trying to reconstruct an event. Yet, I think there is a lot of pleasure to be had too from Linda’s sly stance and advantageous position as an outsider. I found it to be an engaging and quietly philosophical novel which gives an interesting take on a so-called “difficult” character.