Written by Cecilia Ekbäck, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan — Swedish-born writer Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut crime thriller is set in remote north Sweden in 1717. The long darkness of winter is closing in, and the scattered homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain are preparing for what the signs suggest will be a rough time. The Lapps who have come south for the season say it will be a ‘wolf winter’, which they describe as ‘the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.’
Paavo, his wife Maija, and their daughters, 14-year-old Frederika and six-year-old Dorotea, are new arrivals from Finland, and they haven’t spent a winter so far north before. They don’t know the mountain’s dark history of evil portents and mysterious disappearances, and they aren’t sure what to expect. One thing they don’t expect is for Paavo to leave his womenfolk on their own and travel to the coast to try to earn some money. He won’t be back before spring. And they definitely don’t expect that Frederika and Dorotea will discover the mutilated corpse of one of their new neighbours, a man named Eriksson, in a glade where they’d intended to pasture their goats.
When Eriksson’s death comes to light, some of the neighbours attribute the savage attack to a bear, others suggest a wolf, but Maija who is an earth-woman by training – a midewife and healer – insists the death was caused by a human agent. Almost certainly, a murderer is in their midst.
Yet no one misses Eriksson, a man who made it his business to ferret out people’s weaknesses and exploit them. In this tiny community in which everyone knows everyone else and, presumably, most of their secrets and hidden grudges, the layers of deception keep being peeled back.
In the region’s central town the immense power of the church resides in the person of the priest, Olaus Arosander. He starts out as Maija’s adversary, skeptical of her belief Eriksson was murdered. While he doesn’t trust her kind of knowledge, he has secrets of his own that put him at odds with his church’s views as well. Over time, Maija and Arosander become almost equally committed to determining what happened to Eriksson, and whether his death is the end of violence on Blackåsen Mountain or the beginning.
Together, they make a fateful visit to the Lapps, intended by Maija at least to find out what they may know about Eriksson’s death, but which comes across as an indictment. The Lapps, who are only winter visitors to the area, cohabit uneasily with the Swedes, and Maija and Arosander are eager to leave them, despite rapidly worsening weather. On the return trip to Maija’s cabin, a relentless blizzard bears down on them, and the lives of Maija, her daughters, and the priest all could be wiped away if they must endure another few hours in the freezing cold, a slightly stronger wind, a heavier snowfall. The difficulties of surviving in such harsh conditions at that time are vividly brought forth in Ekbäck’s writing, and the reader feels the chill of discovering the many risks they live under – some of which are even more dangerous than the relentless winter.
The notion of wolves takes on both a corporeal and metaphoric significance in the story. It becomes clear that predators are ravaging the countryside, preying on the community’s weakest members. Darkness, too, means more than the months’ long absence of sunlight. It also refers to the special knowledge – call it intuition, call it the ability to read signs, call it something more, but don’t dare call it sorcery – that helps Maija sort truth from misdirection. In that place and time, such special knowledge was a potentially deadly inheritance, one that Maija received from her dead grandmother and which she fears has been passed on to Frederika, who doesn’t yet understand its power or how to control it.
Wolf Winter works well as an audio book. Bresnahan’s narration is clear, and the characters are easy to distinguish both by the reader’s voice and Ekbäck’s helpful cues regarding the speaker’s identity. This is a perfect listen for the shortest days of the year – preferably in front of a fire, in heavy socks and woolly robe, because the novel’s chills come from both the weather so ably described and the hearts of the characters.
Free with Audible trial (£3.85 paperback)
CFL Rating: 5 Stars