There are two debut novels in the Man Booker shortlist this year and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund [London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2017] is both powerful and beautifully written. The story is narrated by Madeline, looking back from her mid-thirties on a fascinating and out-of-the-ordinary Minnesota childhood. Her parents made their first home in a hippy commune and she was something of a loner in the school she went to, involving a hike through the woods to the road and the nearest township. It seems to be based on Spirit Lake, one of a chain of fishing lakes on the Ripple River in north Minnesota where summers are hot and humid, though short while winters are long and cold. Fridlund coveys a wonderful sense of place.
The story concerns Madeline’s summer long acquaintance with a couple of out-of-towners who buy a summer property across the lake from her tumbledown home. They have a four-year-old boy and Madeline is hired to help the mother during the astronomy professor father’s long absences while the mother undertakes proof reading. That all seems very straightforward and undramatic but, first, the boy is clearly not entirely ‘normal’ (whatever normal means) and, second clue, the two parts of the book are titled Science and Health which, to the observant, correctly suggests Christian Science.
Now I have a very good friend who would have died had he been at home when his appendix played up and needed urgent removal. Had he been at home, his Christian Scientist mother might well not have summoned medical help. As founder of the sect, Mary Baker Eddy wrote (and is quoted in the book), “Become conscious for a single moment that Life and intelligence are purely spiritual, — neither in out of matter, — and the body will then utter no complaints.” A central part of the book concerns how this belief of mind over matter squares with the facts as a non-believer would perceive them.
Madeline is also a complex, intelligent but immature girl with no one really to talk with. All of this plays out over the summer but the story moves around in time to build the counterpoint of the novel. Fridlund has total command over the language and uses similes and metaphors to note and admire.
We have to be grateful that the Jury have included History of Wolves in this year’s short list as it is a rewarding and enriching read.