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2017 Man Booker Longlist: History of Wolves

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Book number 5 for our shadow panel is History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Five of us read this book. Once again we reviewed the book on the following criteria: 1) writing quality; 2) originality; 3) character development; 4) plot development; and 5) overall enjoyment. We’ve each provided mini-reviews and ratings. Here are our ratings for History of Wolves.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
2017 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2017
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Anita, Nicole, and Lisa
Find it/buy it here: History of Wolves

Synopsis (from Amazon): Fourteen-year-old Linda lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Linda is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Linda as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong.

And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Linda finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Linda makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Linda confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.

Jen’s Review: The History of Wolves is a pretty gloomy and depressing book (a characteristic that is common of many Man Booker nominees) yet despite the gloomy atmosphere, I found it to be a compelling and engaging book. It captures the essence of loneliness and isolation perhaps better than any book I have ever read. Linda, the teenage protagonist, is profoundly lonely and all her actions throughout the book reflect this feeling. The writing is sparse but captivating and I found myself engaged throughout. In my typical rating scale, this would have merited a 4 star read but using our Man Booker scorecard, it scored lower and here’s why…

While the setting and specifics of the plot were original, the literary world has been flooded with coming of age stories of young women with parents who are either abusive, neglectful, emotionally absent, or detached. In some ways this book reminded me of Eileen by Moshfegh and Emma Cline’s The Girls except I liked this one more. The specific subject matter was different, but they each captured similar emotional lives of their female protagonists as they matured. As such, I couldn’t give the book high marks for originality. I also took off points for plot development and character development. In many ways this novel was a character study yet I was left feeling like I had an incomplete sense of why Linda was the way she was portrayed. Similarly, some of plot lines felt incomplete to me and I didn’t love the ending. That said, I did really like the book and will be keeping an eye on this author. I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 2/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 14/20

Anita’s Review: Never, and I do mean never, have I read an author with the mastery of writing the perfect “telling detail” as Fridlund.  Sentence after sentence gives the reader the full sensory experience: I could see every scene, feel every feeling, taste every taste as if I were physically present in the book. She’s the next Donna Tartt in that regard.  The prose alone makes this book deserving of its long list status.  In addition, there’s real suspense here, and it propels you to keep reading; who doesn’t love that?  Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t quite hold up to the lofty standard set by the writing.  The ending should pack a bigger wallop then it actually does, and is going to leave at least some readers puzzled.  I had to revisit some parts of the book to assure myself that I was comfortable with my own understanding.  There are two main plot lines, and I felt one was much better developed (and also somewhat more interesting) than the other.  The author made some plot choices that rely on readers having strong inference skills, and I do like books that make the reader work a bit, but I felt like to really be all that it could be, this book needed to make some plot points a bit more explicit.  All in all, I completely enjoyed this one; I love dark books, and I love great writing – – give me both in one package, and I’m a happy reader!

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 4/5
Character Development: 4/4
Plot Development: 2/4
Overall Enjoyment: 2/2
 Total: 17/20

Lisa’s Review: Emily Fridlund does a good job of speaking in the voice of an unreliable teenage girl who is impulsive and has urges and desires that she does not fully understand. The author is not sentimental: the narrator, Linda is not particularly likable, particularly at times when she is cruel to the 4 year old. As a reader, I thought, why would you do that? He is only 4.  But I think the answer is that Linda is an adolescent, and is acting like one. Most of the other characters—Linda’s mom and dad, Leo, even Paul – are fairly one dimensional. Although I can understand Leo being one dimensional in Linda’s eyes, I’m not sure why her relationship with her mom and dad was not more fully described. It left me wondering, at the end, why she felt so betrayed by her mom. I also took points off for originality. The way the plot built – Linda is looking back at this episode, and you know something terrible is going to happen, and probably to Paul – and then it does – is fairly predictable. All in all, an enjoyable book, but I don’t think it should be on the short list.

Writing quality:4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development:3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment:2/2
Total: 15/20

Book Worm’s Review: Like Jen, this was a 4 star read for me and, also like Jen, my Man Booker ratings have scored it lower than you would think for a 4 star book.

Firstly I loved the writing this is a beautifully-written book that perfectly captures loneliness, uncertainty, fear and living in an isolated community in winter, it also had the ability at points to make me laugh.

“Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted and stayed.”

“My mother believed in God, but grudgingly, like a grounded daughter.”

In terms of originality the setting and the particular circumstances explored were original, however in terms of the general theme of a girl discovering herself and later facing her past these things have been written out about time and again.

With regard to character and plot development I would class this as a character study and we only really see the narrator as she faces events in her life. There are 2 very key events in the book that are interwoven but beyond that not a lot actually happens and the 2 events are more a sinister backdrop than events that move the plot along. By the end of the book I felt I understood Linda’s reaction to the events described however I didn’t feel that as a reader I had seen her grow as a character.

Low rating aside this is a great book with a menacing atmosphere that I am sure many readers will love.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 14/20

Nicole’s Review:  If I were to describe my perfect book, it would be a book like this.  Stellar clever writing, darkness, an interesting topic, a non-linear timeline and a story which keeps me engaged the whole way through.  It was a 5-star read for me, I absolutely loved it.  As I go to rate it, I want to give it full scores across the board – but I can’t and that irks me.  Just because I loved it, doesn’t mean it was perfect.

There was an aspect of this book which could have been emotional, and the author chose matter-of-factness instead.  It suited the story and I feel like it was done in such a way as not be callous.  I admired it, as I admire many things about this book.

For me it was easy to see how our lonely protagonist latched on to the people she latched on to, and how she became the person she did.  And yes, it’s been done before – but (overcoming and) becoming who we are is life.  So perhaps not totally original it was an original enough take on it for me. I kept wondering where  this author got her ideas and inspiration.  I was awed.

Writing quality:  5/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 17/20

Average score across all panelists: 15.4/20

Have you read History of Wolves? What did you think? Does it belong on the shortlist? Why or why not?

Our Collective Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: 16.8/20
2. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: 16/20
3. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund: 15.4/20
4. Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead: 13.9/20
5. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: 13.7/20

Next up: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. jesshodg #

    Sounds like a great read, booker nominee or not! Am picking up from my library on Monday 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    August 18, 2017
  2. Tracy S #

    I liked it, too- the ending was lacking, but the writing was wonderful.
    I think it fits well as a Booker choice because of the comparisons: abuse, religious views, parenting styles, parent identity, and authority, to name a few. And Linda’s questions about her own sexuality, which I think colored her view of the events.
    I also think that it is this year’s Work Like any Other- a book by a little known American woman that the committee would like to highlight. It probably won’t make the short list, but it’s getting some well deserved attention!

    Liked by 2 people

    August 18, 2017
    • Anita #

      I’ve been defending it to some other readers (not on the panel) as a Booker choice. Personally, I feel it deserves its spot on the longlist, but won’t make the short one; but I really liked it a lot more than most. Thank you for bringing up how the author handled Linda’s sexuality; that’s a well done aspect that I think is being overlooked and truly reflected the puzzlement that sex can be for some teens. I really agree with your comment.

      It’s interesting, but as I distance myself from the book and read more about what others thought, somehow I’m liking it more, not less . . .even though it doesn’t seem like one that will make the shortlist, I personally would be excited to see it there.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 19, 2017
  3. Ah, it sounds intriguing and I am planning to give it a try for next month (LT challenge includes the Man Booker Award – I’m trying this one). I guess we’ll see!

    Like

    August 18, 2017
  4. even though some of you scored it lowish, it’s still coming up well in the rankings.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 19, 2017
    • Sometimes our scorecard doesn’t match our feelings about the book. I really enjoyed this one (with the exception of the ending) and some of our panelists loved it. However, I don’t quite understand why it made the list although I would recommend it to others

      Like

      August 19, 2017
  5. mootastic1 #

    I am currently reading this one and enjoying it. Thrilled to see Nicole’s and Anita’s raves. Good sign for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 20, 2017
    • Anita #

      Oh yeah, you are all good!

      Like

      August 21, 2017

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  1. 2017 Man Booker Shortlist Predictions | The Reader's Room
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