This book is beautifully written - that’s the first thing to say about it. The language is sensitive and evocative. The landscape - woodlands and lakes, once wild but now increasingly encroached upon by civilisation - is very well described and the characters are depicted with delightful nuance of gesture and expression.
The storyline concerns a teenage girl, something of a loner, who lives in a remote and dilapidated cabin with her parents but, unlike them, engages with the community by attending school and befriending a newcomer family. It is her interactions with this family throughout the course of eight or nine months which is the primary plotline. The narrative is told partly from her point of view as a teenager and partly from a later date, with the hindsight of age, but, it seemed to me, time and distance had done little to help her understand the events of that period.
Woven into the main plot are other tendrils - too tenuous and unresolved to call threads - concerning a teacher who is accused of paedophilia and a girl called Lily, his supposed victim. These figures continue to interest the protagonist into her later life but their contribution towards the book’s dramatic and thematic impetus was far too unresolved for my liking.
It is always important to get a handle on what a book is about - quite different, of course, to what happens in it - and this is where I begin to come unstuck with this one. I can make a stab at it, but to give the impression that the themes are fully worked out would be misleading. The title ought to be a clue, but I’d say that A Sociology of Wolves might be a better steer. Apart from a school project about wolves and a taxidermy example at a local park, the closest we get to any actual wolves is the pack of dogs kept by the narrator’s family, which is wild enough to need chaining up.
Wolves, we know, are usually pack animals with a very defined hierarchy, experts at working together, territorial and, as civilisation encroaches further and further into the wilderness, becoming increasingly integrated into the urban environment. Outside of the packs, lone wolves operate independently, having to be extremely self-reliant, adaptable, cunning and resourceful. Naturally the wolf is capable of domestication, over time, its strengths being harnessed to aid people as hunters, protectors, herders, retrievers, companions and rescuers. Taking that as my baseline I can say that this book is about the ‘packs’ we humans make for ourselves: families, communes, religious groups. The narrator’s family is now a nuclear unit but was once part of a commune which established itself in the woods, survived for a while but then broke down. The newcomers are members of a Christian Science Church whose beliefs have a dramatic impact on the outworking of the plot. Lily is a Native American girl living on a reserve. Frankly, though, none of these packs come across as very appealing or shining examples of cohesive community. Perhaps that’s the point.
Even the paedophile, I suppose, could be described as being part of a distinct sub-group. At the same time he is a lone wolf, moving (hounded?) from place to place as his past catches up with him. Perhaps this is why the narrator finds herself so interested in him. She, too, is a loner, shifting her persona depending on where she is and who she is with. She is Madeline at home, Mattie at school, Linda to her friends at the new cabin. She hovers on the line between normal human interaction and a watchful, distanced, stance. Her relationships with Patra, the mother at the cabin, and Lily, the school girl, are very ambiguous. Sometimes she seems fascinated, sometimes affectionate. Occasionally I wondered if she was sexually attracted to them, at others it seemed her interest was very predatory. There were points when she makes what seem to be kindly gestures, other moments when, crucially, with the opportunity to do an honest, altruistic thing, she withholds it.
Overall the impression is a somewhat bleak one. I did not come away from this book feeling reassured. I think it would be a good choice for reading groups, though. Lots and lots to discuss.