Wolf Winter is an atmospheric and beautifully written novel. Ekbäck writes of a group of people living on and around Blackåsen mountain, in the northernmost region of Sweden, in the 18th Century. The book follows the arrival of Maija, her husband Paavo, and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea at Blackåsen mountain. During their first week in their new home, Frederika and Dorotea stumble upon the body of Eriksson, who would have been one of their new neighbours. Most of the settlers believe that Eriksson was killed by wolves, but the arrival of this new family forces a lot of buried secrets to light.
Swedish Lappland is a difficult place for anybody to live, especially in winter when there is no sunlight. The ‘wolf winter’ of the title is, as Antii tells Frederika, ‘the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone’. Ekbäck’s narration of this magnificent scenery is wonderful; in summer, the mountain is surrounded by pine trees, giving off a ‘golden-green smell of resin and warm wood’. In winter, the metres of snow coupled with screaming winds seem horrific. It is a relief when, in Spring, Maija can see a greyness which will soon become daylight.
Ekbäck has made the right decision, in my view, to write in contemporary English because it allows the story to be told unencumbered. Ghosts and spirits, beleived in by many of the settlers, crop up in the story; are the characters being haunted or are they feeling the effects of living in such harsh conditions? In the 18th Century they may have thought the former, so the reader needs understand this perspective without being alienated by language. Frederika and her mother both see Maija’s dead grandmother, Jutta. Many of the settlers believe in evil spirits – indeed, one of the settlers was tried, but acquitted, for being a witch. There is a sense that nobody can be trusted on the mountain. Are people what they seem?
I found it interesting the way that Paavo is removed from the story. Paavo has anxiety issues and phobia of the sea in a world that doesn’t understand mental health issues. Maija is only allowed to speak in settler meetings because her husband is away (Maija talking on equal terms with a man if her husband were present would be ‘going against the natural order of God’). Perhaps it is necessary for Paavo to move to the coast to look for work, so that Maija can have a role in public life and therefore the story. Maija seems to resent her husband’s depressions and anxieties, which says something about the way that masculinity and gender roles are portrayed today.
Wolf Winter was a riveting read. Well-written but with enough plot to satisfy. It’s a book to read during winter, hopefully when you’re curled up at home with the central heating on.