Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Wolf Wilder, by Katherine Rundell - reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Bloomsbury, the publishers of The Wolf Wilder, clearly thought that they had something very special on their hands when they were thinking about how to present this novel, because they have produced a very lovely book. The layout is generous, with lots of white space which makes it very easy on the eye, and it's beautifully illustrated in black and white by Gelrev Ongbico.

 The book is set in the Russia of a century ago, just after the St Petersburg massacre. The Tsar is distant from his people, and Feo and her mother Marina live remotely from everyone. They are 'wolf-wilders'; this is, we are told, an inherited occupation. The scenario is that aristocrats in the city have a liking for keeping wolves as pets. When, inevitably, the wolves rebel, they are sent to wolf wilders who train them to live as they were meant to live, out in the forests. (They aren't killed because that would bring bad luck.)

Feo loves her three wolves, White, Grey and Black, and she and her mother are exceptionally close. They are happy, until one day their peace is shattered by a sadistic local army commander, Rakov, who believes their wolves have killed an elk, and orders them to kill any wolves sent to them from then on.

Of course they don't co-operate, and before long Marina is arrested, their house is burnt down, and when a boy soldier, Ilya, tells Feo that her mother has been taken to prison in St Petersburg, Feo knows at once that she will go and rescue her. So she, the wolves, and Ilya set off: and the rest of their book is about the journey, their continuing feud with Rakov, and the people they meet on the way.

It's a beautifully written book. Here, Katherine Rundell describes Marina: '...her face, a visitor had once said, was built on the blueprint used for snow leopards, and for saints. "The look," he had said, "is goddess, modified."' Or here's Ilya: 'He was tall and fair, and without the covering of snow he looked very thin; the bones in his hands seemed to be making a bid to escape from his skin. His voice sounded of cities: soft, Feo thought.'

Feo is fierce and very determined. She reminds me a bit of Lyra in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights; she's strong, rough at the edges, not at all sure how she should talk to people - but she wins others over by dint of her courage, her loyalty, and her blazing sense of what's right and what's wrong. She's charismatic: someone who others will follow.

Feo - you can just see her feet - and her three wolves, sleeping in a pile.

This book has the quality of a legend, a fairy tale - partly because of its setting, of course, in the forests of eastern Europe. But it's also grounded in a real place, in a time of turmoil, and the dialogue, the emotions of the characters, are also real; it's often funny too. i enjoyed it very much.


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