It is 1717 and Maija, Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea journey from Finland to make a new life for themselves as farmers and shepherds on the slopes of Blackåsen mountain in the remote Swedish Lapland. Few families live on the mountain, their few houses lying scattered and distant. The nearest town is deserted for most of the year, with only the priest and the last priest’s widow to keep an eye on its empty buildings. In the winter, though, this place changes into something unrecognisable as the snow and ice seal it within a deadly iron grip. Most of the settlers move into the town for a few short weeks while the indigenous Lapps come down from the highest reaches of the mountain to camp at its base.
Towards the end of summer Frederika and Dorotea come across the body of a dead man on the mountain side, his torso split from end to end. While some see in this the work of a wolf or bear, Maija recognises it for what it is – murder by human hand. She’s not alone. The priest, too, another outsider, suspects the worst. Maija and the priest are strangers on Blackåsen mountain, unaware of the complicated relationships that exist among the scattered settlers on the mountain. Maija and the priest begin to dig, egged on by the local bishop. But life on the mountain is precarious. The weather turns and early frosts destroy the harvest. The mountain has secrets as does almost everyone else who lives on its slopes but this worst of dark winters – a wolf winter – will seek them out.
Wolf Winter is a chilly tale, bleak in its coldness, the characters adrift in the snow, enduring winter starvation, isolation, suspicion and now deadly violence. With so few people on the mountain, relationships can be too close, but it is only when strangers arrive that the true nature of all that is wrong fights to the surface. The narrative moves among the settlers, spending time in turn with Maija, the priest and Frederika. Through each of them we are introduced to other characters, most memorably the murdered man’s widow, the Lapps and the noble couple that has chosen to live the remotest of exiles. Frederika’s perspective is especially powerful due to the added isolation caused by her youth.
It’s not just the mountain that’s dangerous. The outside world threatens with its calls to war. There is a strong sense that nowhere is safe and no future is certain.
The mystery is almost secondary to the wilderness and its inhabitants. Cecilia Ekbäck has created a harshly beautiful vision of an environment that is cold enough to chill the pages as much as the bones. The language is gorgeous. The characters are exquisitely drawn, especially the children Frederika and Dorotea. There is a particularly dramatic incident that has a grave impact on Dorotea and her family and this is brilliantly, painfully described. The enormous effort that is required just to survive is immense and Cecilia Ekbäck makes us feel every bit of it. But in this environment anything can happen and we are surrounded by its threat. The drama of survival goes hand in hand with the murder mystery, while in the shadows we have the spectre of war, the scar of which has traumatised more than one soul on the mountain. This is a bleak world. The secrets almost compete in their effort to shock. As the novel proceeds, they tumble after each other, one after another.
Wolf Winter takes a little while to pull the reader in – this is a strangely unfamiliar world – but once the winter falls, its haunting power and beauty mesmerises.