The Wolf in the Attic by Richard Kearney
By Natasja Hellenthal
Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea.
But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and halfforgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.
That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.
The Wolf in the Attic was published in 2016. Part period piece, part fantasy, it’s one of the more unusual books I have read in a while.
The story is told through our heroine, Anna, aged eleven, who lives in shabby house with her father in Jericho in Oxford. It is 1929 and Anna and her father are refugees from Smyrna, Greece, where, seven years earlier, they lost her mother and all the rest of their family. Dulled by his pain, Anna’s father has withdrawn into himself and his drinking, less interested in his little daughter than in the dream of going home, and in the endless meetings with others of the Greek expat community.
Anna is taught at home and has no friends except her doll, Pie, with whom she shares all her secrets. It is a slow build-up story, but beautifully told and so engaging you just want to read on. She doesn’t like England and the weather much, but there are always stories to cheer her up, whether those are E. Nesbit’s tales of the Psammead, or the tales her father used to tell her about Achilles and Agamemnon.
And she explores. It’s during one of these expeditions that she comes across a group of people who will change her life forever.
You might find Anna’s narratorial voice slightly childish to begin with, but it makes for an authentic read, so bear with it. After all, the reader views the story from an eleven year old’s perspective, though she is quite intelligent for her age, yet this is not a story for children. Adults, who enjoy clever, thoughtful writing, will recognise the subtle arrangement of dread, fear, and despair. The author is such a gifted storyteller that the reader is immersed in the life and times of Anna and her doll Pie. I certainly was hooked from page one.
Apart from the historical aspects which paints a dark and gritty picture of the early twentieth century – the massacre at Smyrna, prejudice and discrimination, murder and violence, there are fantastical elements blended in – this is after all the same place where C.S Lewis and Tolkien resided (they even make brief appearances).
You’ll find shape shifting people, ancient secret groups, pagan gods, even Old Nick himself. As a fantasy adventure, set in Oxford, with a young girl as the central character, we’re reminded of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, but this is a very different story. Instead, the reader might find parts which recall the books of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper combined with parts that feel like more ‘adult’ Fantasy stories such as Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.
Stories aimed at children can often be more profound than those intended for adults, after all.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who has a youthful, open mind and a will to be whisked away on an adventure where the gritty reality of life melds with the wonder of myth and legend. This is an haunting book that will transport you back in time. The historical setting and the mythology that is skilfully woven into the story are formed with care. It’s a tantalising tale for dark winter nights and a book to re-read for all its symbolism.
The story’s ending feels perhaps too abrupt. I hear that there will be a sequel, so I’m looking forward to it!
Or maybe you’ve already read this book? What did you think?
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