Life can change in an instant. For Lucas, the sudden death of his parents in a car accident casts him into a kind of half-life, haunted by the dog/wolf that caused the crash. He moves to Cumbria, there to be looked after, unwillingly at first, by his Nan, his mum’s estranged mother. And he goes not alone – the wolf reappears on the mountain near Nan’s cottage, terrorizing both the local wildstock and Lucas himself.
The spirit of Ted Hughes is never far from the world of this exceptional novel. Hughes’ mythic landscapes, both physical and psychological, are swiftly conjured up in the mind’s eye by precise and poetic prose: ‘the clack of knives and forks’ emphasizes the dead silence that meets Lucas and his Nan’s early frozen relationship; cars cross the cattle grid by the cottage ‘buzz-rattling’ or ‘mumbling’ depending on the emotional logic of the character passing; ‘the whole carnivorous, murdering zoo’ is the madness that Lucas is subjected to every day. This is the kind of language that intensifies the already raw and sensitive wound caused by Lucas’ grief and, despite the numbness that grows on us readers as we get to know the youth, we appropriately sense these momentary flashes of feeling so strongly too.
Then also, Hughes’ animals prowl and skitter on the margins: ‘Autumn’s the time for spiders. Fat sacs huddled in the middle of big targets, waiting for grub’. (Can’t you just hear the Laureate’s Yorkshire grain here?) The wheatear’s Zorro-like mask, the stink of the bleeding urine-soaked body of a badger, they are all abounding in their musky, earthy presence. And as the wolf draws ever closer, closer, it’s shaggy patches and amber eye conjures up that same monstrous creature that stalks throughout Hughes’ output.
Having said all this, though, is not to put Lambert’s own story and language in the shade. He has much to say about the brutality of childhood, the confusion of growing up, the straining connections between adolescents and their parents. Although Lucas’ experiences are tragic, we are forced to turn away from the life of ‘pre-crash’ Lucas. His best friend from the days when his parents were alive, later turns out to be unrecognizable as grief takes hold and Lucas learns to grow, painful as that may be, from the cocoon of safe routine that was his previous life.
Lambert’s depiction of the unfeeling blankness of ‘the system’ is brilliantly realized in his portrayal of a robotic education system, where no-one offers support, and a local police force more interested in power and regulations than any human, or even bestial, sensitivity.
And while the pain and suffering in this book is hard, The Wolf Road is not a difficult book to love. There is real humanity in the way in which it deals with its subjects and while the emotional depth will repay close reading, the book’s thrilling story will keep teen readers turning the pages to the climactic finale.
I have been lucky enough to read many excellent books this year, but very few have taken me in their steely grip and struck so forcibly as this one. It should find its way into the same hands that cherish A Kestrel for a Knave, Anthony McGowan’s The Truth of Things quartet and, of course, the poetry of Ted Hughes.
There is no doubt about it: The Wolf Road is by far and away one of my stand-out books of the year.
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