Book Review: The Wolf in the Attic, Paul Kearney (2016)

May 23rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

An Egyptian Werewolf in Oxford

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment/assault and allusions to rape.)

I understand now all the fairy tales, those that talk of the dangers of the deep forest, and the beasts that lurk there. All those fears were true. I know them now. I am in the middle of one such story, and all I want is out of it.

— 3.5 stars —

It’s 1929, and another year is drawing to a close in Oxford. Eleven-year-old (almost twelve!) Anna Francis hates it, all of it: the cold, dreary weather. The short days and unforgiving nights. The drafty house and her empty belly. Her father’s sadness, so often drowned in a bottle of Scotch. The isolation and loneliness and profound sense of alienation.

Anna and her father are refugees; the last surviving members of the Sphrantzes clan. Once they lived in Smyrna, a Turkish city on the Aegean Sea, like their ancestors before them. But the end of the Great War gave birth to the Greco-Turkish War – after which most of the Christians remaining in Smyrna were forced to leave. When their community was sacked, Anna and Georgio wound up on a ship bound for England. Anna’s mother wasn’t as lucky; along with many pretty young girls and women, she was kidnapped by Turkish forces. Nor do they know the fate of Nikos, Anna’s older brother and a member of the army deployed to fight the Turkish forces. Her trusty doll Penelope – named after Odysseos’s wife, Pie for short – is all she has left of him.

Though Anna and Georgio live in a ginormous house, just the two of them, Anna has trouble finding time for herself. During the day, she’s hounded by the strict Miss Hawcross and her menacing ruler; and at night, her father frequently hosts Committee meetings, such that her house is teeming with strangers. So she sneaks out to roam the streets of Oxford, and explores the upper floors of the house, long since closed off and forbidden to her, in search of adventure. This is how she meets the strange boy, with dark hair and skin like hers: but eyes that glow in a way that no human’s should.

Luca and his family are commonly mistaken for Romani and, while they are kin and fellow travelers too, Luca’s family traces their bloodline to Egypt. Matriarch Queenie sees something special in Anna and, when her world is turned upside down (yet again), she seeks refuge with them, these people who seem to have followed her from the Old World. However, not all is as it seems: not when magic and shapeshifters and witchcraft and fallen angels are afoot.

The Wolf in the Attic is not quite what I expected, in ways both good and not-so-good. Let’s start with the good: Anna. Hers is a singular voice, both vulnerable and spirited, lost and yet full of determination. Kearney gives her a distinct voice that’s endearing, believable, and compelling. Towards the end of the book, when she faces down the Big Bad Wolf and snarls right back in his face, I saw a spark of Lyra Silvertongue in her – which is pretty much the highest compliment I could pay a young heroine, I tell you what. (The synopsis mentions Philip Pullman, and the overall feel of the book is maybe a little reminiscent of His Dark Materials, but the similarities are rather slight, I think.)

Kearney chronicles Anna and Georgio’s struggle to fit in, to assimilate to their new, adopted country, with compassion and grace. The frequent target of racist bullying, Georgio worries after his daughter, imploring Anna to act more genteel and ladylike. And while his fears are not unfounded, it’s heartbreaking to watch him enforce these rules through intimidation and physical punishment. Yet even as he worries after Anna, he often ignores her, too: leaving her alone for long stretches while off on “business” (which, as it turns out, is drinking and gambling and womanizing). Father and daughter alike suffer from trauma and stigmatization, yet they never quite find a way to bond over this shared suffering, or come together and face it as one. They may have survived the war, but it never really left them.

While the story starts off slowly, it picks up steam in the second half and features a pretty big plot twist near the end. Yet I often found myself confused by the details, specifically the major players and their allegiances and motivations. Possibly this is because the characters have Biblical roots, and I’m not very well versed in the Bible. (I’m an atheist, raised in a non-practicing Christian/Catholic household. Most of what I know of the Bible comes from Supernatural.)

Yet, for the emphasis on Lewis and Tolkien in the synopsis, The Wolf in the Attic is not as overtly (or perhaps proselytistic is a more accurate word?) Christian as I expected. Or maybe the ending makes it so? I’m still a little unclear on the finer points.

Speaking of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, their role is much smaller and incidental to the story than I expected. Save for a few chance meetings with Anna on the streets of Oxford, Jack and Mr. Ronald (“Tollers”) don’t appear at all. I don’t mind – it was the mention of Philip Pullman that really caught my attention – but fans might be a little bummed. Or not: it’s a fun line of thought, anyway.

The insta-love between Anna and Luca also rubbed me the wrong way – doubly so given their age difference. Whereas Anna is just turning twelve, Luca is ‘maybe’ fifteen. Or sixteen. Or even as old as seventeen. (His family doesn’t really keep track.) Three or five years might not be much for adults, but at that age, the difference is pretty significant. The high end even makes him seem like a pedophile. (Pedophile-adjacent?)

Of course, Anna’s young age also makes the twist that much more horrifying, so I guess there’s a bit of a trade-off there. Still. This is one pair I won’t be shipping any time soon.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Anna and her father and refugees. Though the family had lived in Smyrna (modern İzmir, a city in Turkey on the Aegean Sea) for generations (at least on the paternal/Sphrantzes side), they were forced out after Greco-Turkish War. Before they boarded the ship that would carry them to England, however, Anna’s mother was kidnapped by the Turkish forces (as were many pretty young women and girls, presumably for sexual slavery). Her older brother Nikos joined the army to fight the Turks earlier, and she doesn’t know what became of him, either.

In Oxford, Anna and Georgios’s dark hair and skin set them apart. Anna is bullied by kids her age and called a “dago,” among other racial slurs. Her father, in his desire to assimilate, changes their surname from Sphrantzes to Francis (and his name from Georgios to George). He hires a governess to tutor her and implores Anna to act like a genteel, proper young lady.

Anna’s father is physically abusive, an alcoholic, and a compulsive gambler and womanizer who’s frequently gone for long stretches of time, leaving Anna (mostly) alone. Though he had some investments when they first fled to England, he lost most of their money (presumably through gambling) and frequently they don’t have enough to eat properly or pay the rent. When George is murdered, Anna becomes an orphan, destined for confinement in Headington Workhouse – until she runs away.

When Anna’s rented home is opened up to boarders, both eleven-year-old Anna and her tutor Miss Hawcross are sexually harassed by Mr. Beeswick, one of her new housemates.

Queenie, Job, Luca (the titular wolf in the attic), and Jaelle are travelers; though frequently mistaken for Romani, they trace their ancestral line to Egypt. Like Anna, they have dark hair and skin, and are often the targets of racist slurs (and worse).

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. In a heart-wrenching passage, Anna recounts how her horse perished when the Turks attacked their home:

I remember the horse galloping past us that day through the crowd, knocking people down. It was all on fire, flames streaming from its mane, and its eyes so wide and white with the agony. It galloped past us, and I never saw where it went.

Also, while wandering alone, orphaned, Anna happens upon a similarly forlorn dog in the streets of Oxford:

A little brown and white dog goes snuffling past me in the gutter, raises his head as I go by and looks at me with the sweetest, most hopeful face; but as I slow he twitches away as if expecting a blow and runs off with his tail down. Another orphan, I suppose. I wonder if I will ever look as frightened and hungry as he does. And I feel a sudden blast of hatred for all the people who walk past him without so much as a glance or a kind word. What a horrible place.

Otherwise there are quite a few wild animal corpses to be found here, as is to be expected in a story about werewolves, I suppose.

 

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