Wolf Winter

Written by Cecilia Ekbäck
Review by Bethany Latham

Strong, stoic Maija, wavering Paavo, and daughters Frederika and Dorotea leave their native Finland for Swedish Lapland in 1717, having traded homesteads with Paavo’s uncle. Settled in the shadow of Blackåsen Mountain, they attempt to make a new life for themselves. When Frederika stumbles upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, they realize dark forces are at work.

This is a strange book. As a mystery/thriller, it hits the right tone, everyone has secrets, and red herrings delay resolution until the penultimate page. Characterization is robust, and Lapland as setting balances beauty and brutality, a vast space that feels claustrophobic when the ravages of winter trap its few inhabitants. The oddness arrives with the prose and a dose of…Scandinavian magical realism? Ekbäck’s non-native English flavors the text in both positive and negative ways: her characters’ metaphors, cadence and word choice feel Nordic (snowflakes are “battered sideward,” there’s a “landslip” instead of a slide), adding ambiance. But noting “The room smelled irritated from the lye,” is dissonant, and referring to a character marked by unknown disease as having “crayfish, perhaps. Crayfish was like hatred. It ate away at a person from the inside,” should have been edited to provide better context. (I may be more obtuse than some, but I googled and still have no idea what crayfish, as a human disease or allegory for one, might be. Perhaps the lung parasite one can get from eating said crustaceans raw?) As to the magical realism, Maija holds conversations with an unintroduced “Jutta” (her deceased grandmother), there are wolves only Frederika and Maija can see, and Frederika spends quality time with the spirit of the murdered man she found on Blackåsen.

Taken as a whole, this is an absorbing read that, at times, is just a little… odd. But normal is boring, right?