Book review: Wolf Road

THE tag line might read something like, In the spirit of True Grit, this is a yarn about a wild child with a wagon load of gumption negotiating a fearsome world. 

Beth Lewis

Harper Collins, €12.99

And as a spiritual child of the likes of True Grit, the book has a lot of words like fearsome and gumption and musically hokey sentence structures redolent of the Wild West.

As a debut novel it is quite the literary performance and there is a lively narrative engine pumping through its 400 pages.

So who is this girl, who after a rolling belch tells us, “That was some fine food and my stomach said its thanks.”

She is Elka and we meet her after she finds herself wandering alone in the wilderness after a few years under the stern hand of her grandmother. 

Her parents have travelled north for gold-prospecting and her only connection with them now is a tattered letter expressing their love for her.

The journey of the book is from Elka’s childhood to her hoped-for reconciliation with mam and dad. 

The defining detour that her life takes is to encounter Trapper who takes her in and shows her the ways of the wilderness.

We know it is not going to end well between Elka and Trapper as a powerful prologue plays out like a visceral fairytale where she hides high in a tree while he stalks her and bleeds across the snowy and blasted landscape.

The sense of the natural world is powerfully portrayed, from the trapping of animals to the gutting, skinning and eating of them. Even as it strains credibility, the relationship that develops between a wolf and Elka is really nicely drawn.

While she is a lone wolf herself, the story centres on her relationships with people. The story goes into a number of dark places as people who offer nourishment and friendship don’t always fulfil their promises.

As she negotiates her way through some very male badlands, the novel itself has a strong female slant, not least in the central relationship that develops between Elka and Penelope, an elegant and finely dressed young woman who also finds herself adrift.

Elka’s relationship with the wolf at one end of the spectrum and the possibly refining influence of Penelope offer her a range of options for how her own life might progress.

The feeling from the language of the book is in the tradition of a Wild West yarn but for all the animals populating its pages and for all the journeys there is hardly a mile covered by road and none by horseback. 

And yet it is still very much the western albeit a horse opera without horses or a road movie without roads.

One aspect of the story that is not persuasive is the Apocalyptic time in which it seeks to be set. Lewis makes veiled references to the bombing and contamination of lakes and land in a bygone war.

While no explicit reference is made to an exact year, there are certain references to an antibiotic brand that would bring us at least to the recent past or present if not a time in the future. 

But that does not explain the stylised language and social trappings which almost all reference the late 1800s.

Perhaps the intention was to create a future dystopia which had more in common with an elemental past but if so that kick-back to the 19th century seems too complete and carries too few passengers from the 20th century in verbal, social or political terms.

A writer can create a world populated by rabbits in striped pyjamas but it has to be persuasive and in Lewis’s book, the apocalyptic shtick is aspirational rather than earned or achieved.

But all is not lost in that failure, the characterisations are rich and the story with its various macabre detonations is quite literally, bloody well told.


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