14 July 2017

Wolf in the Attic

A review of Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney (Solaris, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

Paul Kearney is probably best known as a writer of epic fantasies. His series ‘The Monarchies of God’, ‘The Sea Beggars’, and ‘The Macht’ are all excellent examples of that genre. So this new book from his pen will be something of a surprise to readers who come to it expecting more of the same. Instead of another epic fantasy, he offers us a lyrical coming of age story set in Oxford at the end of the 1920s.

The heroine is one Anna Francis (or Sphrantzes), a twelve-year-old Greek refugee who survived the 1922 sack of Smyrna by the Turks. She is now living in Oxford with her father and is desperately unhappy. She has no friends of her own age and she misses her mother who was killed by the Turks. To make matters worse, in his despair over the loss of his home and family her father has turned to alcohol and become obsessed with campaigning for the repatriation of Greek refugees. Their life is increasingly impoverished, though he somehow finds the money to keep paying for her private education.

Anna’s story begins in fragmentary manner, reflecting her tutor’s complaints about her dragonfly mind. Snatches of narrative give us her impressions of Oxford and memories of their evacuation from Smyrna. The story is written largely in the first person and in the present tense, giving it a slow, dreamlike quality.

Anna takes refuge from her loneliness in books and daydreams and long walks around Oxford. One winter’s evening she slips out of their house in Jericho to escape yet another of her father’s interminable committee meetings. She finds her way to Port Meadow where she witnesses a killing, which marks the beginning of her descent into a living nightmare.

Her life has become linked with that of the killer, a young Romani boy named Luca. A few weeks later near midwinter, she encounters Luca and his family in Wytham Wood. Shortly afterwards, she helps Luca hide from the Roadmen, the ancient enemies of his people. And the next morning her father is found dead – apparently murdered by one or more individuals he had invited into the house.

Anna, now orphaned and disowned by the Greek exile community, is destined for the workhouse. Instead she runs away, intent on finding her way to Luca’s people. Her quest leads her into an ever stranger world – the Old World – of Romani and Roadmen, of skinchangers and an Oxfordshire farmer, Gabriel, who may also be some kind of native deity – a world in which she faces down the devil and avenges her father’s death. And at the end of it all she discovers what she thought she had lost for ever – home, the home of her heart – no longer in Smyrna but in rural Oxfordshire.

Strangely though, the novel does not feel as if this is the end of the story. She has come of age and she has attained her heart’s desire (albeit through great loss), but we have been given glimpses of her importance (and that of her relationship with Luca) to the Old World. And these glimpses point to another story beyond this one.

Also pointing beyond this story are her tantalizing encounters with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They are portrayed sympathetically and both (but particularly Lewis) help her at crucial points early in the story. But that help could have been provided by others, so why drag them into it at all? And why play with the history of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity if his is no more than a walk-on part?

Then there is the farmer Gabriel. He feels too large a character to be limited to the supporting role he has here. Is this simple countryman in fact some kind of genius loci or tutelary deity? He reminded me of the kind of being Ransome becomes in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. What is his place in the age old struggle between the Romani and the Roadmen? And what does Anna’s come mean for him and for that ancient tension?

At the end of Wolf in the Attic, I was left with a slew of questions and a sense that Kearney had teased me glimpses of a mythical England about which I’d like to know a good deal more. But this should not be taken as criticism. I thought it was a superbly written book. His previous books have been enjoyable, action-packed fantastical romps. But this is quieter, deeper, more evocative – the kind of book that demands you re-read it as soon as you have reached the end. Wolf in the Attic is a book to savour. I just hope there is a sequel to answer some of my questions!

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