Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: 'The Wolf in the Attic' by Paul Kearney

Fantasy was the first genre that truly captured my attention and fuelled a desire to explore the different mythologies around the world. Is it thus that I ended up annoying my family during a holiday to Greece as I relayed to them some of the more gruesome Greek myths over dinner. Or while walking. Or as they tried to sleep. Basically, I really loved myths and legends and I still do. As such, it is no surprise that The Lord of the Rings became one of my favourite books. It should also come as no surprise that Kearney's The Wolf in the Attic, with its suggestion of Tolkien, Lewis and mythology, captured my attention straightaway. Thanks to Rebellion and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/05/2016
Publisher: Rebellion; Solaris
1920s Oxford: home to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien... and Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work around them.
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 half-forgotten 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 world is deeply imbued with myth and magic. Each corner of the Earth has a tale, has a history and has a meaning and this is one of the things I love. I voraciously read books that collected these myths, legends and even fairy tales from all across, in a desire to understand humanity because these tales are of us and our desires. These myths and legends have also inspired countless authors who  who have gone on to add their own stories to the mix. Kearney aims to capture this magic in The Wolf in the Attic, to draw back the veil of modernity and reveal the Old World beneath the concrete. In a way, The Wolf in the Attic is also an ode to Oxfordshire, and the English countryside as a whole. Kearney really brings to life the magic that lingers in the landscape, as well as the history that has shaped it to be so powerful to the imagination.

Anna Francis is a Greek refugee who grows up in the Oxford of the 1920s, slowly forgetting her home country and yet always feeling other in England. Anna is a great character, spunky and passionate but also aware and mature beyond her age. Both her experiences fleeing her home country and the racism she encounters in her new home make her quite insightful, but Kearney never forgets to also let her be an eleven-year old. The first half or so of the novel focuses on Anna in Oxford and has a distinct 'historical fiction' feel to it. This is also where Tolkien and Lewis feature. Their appearances are entertaining, but only half-relevant to the plot. Were it not for the importance of myth and fantasy to the story, their presence would be a major disturbance. Now, it feels like a nod from an apprentice to a master, a way of saying thank you for what they have created. The second half of the novel enters the territory of myth and fantasy and here, unfortunately, Kearney occasionally loses the thread. Although the retains a fluidity of style and a talent for beautiful imagery, his lore is not as worked out as it should have been. What occasionally makes Tolkien seem so dry is his academic approach to world-building and his hammering on about history. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it's what builds his world so thoroughly. Kearney incorporates a lot of different mythology into his work but they don't come together seamlessly. Also, central to the story are people akin to the Romani and I'm still not entirely sure whether I'm happy about their portrayal or not. I will have to think some more on that.

Kearney's writing is beautiful. He has a knack for describing detail and through Anna's eyes we get to see Oxfordshire in all its glory. Whether it's snow gently falling or Anna's memories of Greece, Kearney makes them evocative and beautiful. He also captures Anna's voice really well and makes her a character you truly come to care for. But, as said above, there is a distinct two act-feel about this novel, with the first part being set in the modern world and the second in the Old. The transition isn't quite as fluid as I'd hoped and there are a lot of things that are left unexplained. In a way The Wolf int the Attic feels like the first novel in a trilogy that leaves the large part of the world building to the second book, which I've seen other reviewers comment on as well. If Kearney had given himself a few more pages of exposition here or there, this would have filled up those gaps nicely and prevented some of the confusion and, I'm sad to say, slight disappointment. In the end, The Wolf in the Attic is a beautiful novel that leaves something to be wished for.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Although I adored Kearney's writing, The Wolf in the Attic could have done with some more background, a deep dive into its subject material. However, it is a beautiful novel about the Old World that occasionally soars very high. I'd recommend this to fans of Fantasy and Historical Fiction.

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