Reading The Wolf in the Attic, by Paul Kearney, was like reading two different books. One of these books was a solid three-star read. The other was very familiar and ultimately unsatisfying, and would probably get a 2.5 star rating from me. I’ll explain at the end of the review how I came to the overall rating I chose.
Kearney’s other work is described as second-world epic fantasy and he is compared to David Gemell. The Wolf in the Attic is a departure for him. It’s set in 1920s Oxford, England, and the main character is an eleven-year-old girl named Anna.
Anna Francis, like her father, is a Greek refugee, forced to evacuate her home city of Smyrna after the Turkish occupation in 1922. Anna’s mother and brother were killed during the evacuation. Her father is the unofficial leader of a community of refugees. He spends much of his time in the early part of the book petitioning the British government for help for the refugees and being rebuffed.
Oxford is a university city but there is a darkness around the edges, as Anna discovers when she slips out to go walking late at night. She witnesses a killing; there are signs of a large black dog, and she befriends a strange boy named Luca who has taken refuge in her attic. Luca introduces her to a group of travelers who live in the nearby woods.
The first half of The Wolf in the Attic is gentle and moody, as we get to know Anna. We travel with her as she explores the old house they are renting, as she goes on her dangerous late night walks, as she tries to reconnect with her increasingly distant and bitter father. In her explorations, Anna meets two Oxford dons who call themselves “Jack” and “Tollers.” “Jack” is the friendlier of the two, and brings Anna to a local pub to have hot chocolate and listen to them talk. It seems as if C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who are of course Jack and Tollers, might be of some help to Anna, but they provide only an extended cameo here.
Halfway through the book, closing in on winter solstice, the story becomes a conventional struggle between good and evil, using traditional British folkloric tropes. Anna’s father is murdered in their home and Anna flees, pursued by two factions (and briefly by the Devil). This part of the book is well-written but predictable. Anna changes from a nuanced character with an interesting history to a Chosen One with a Destiny, and that Destiny, as one group sees it, is stereotypical. Luca’s final decision, near the end, while lovely, is not particularly supported by the story as it has unfolded.
The first half of The Wolf in the Attic wrapped around me like a hand-crocheted comforter, drawing me in, but during the second half I had trouble suspending disbelief at key points. The story seems to set up an important role for C.S. Lewis, who gives Anna detailed instructions on how to reach him if she is ever in trouble, but then Lewis never appears in the book again. The expatriate Greek community turns its back on Anna after her father is killed, because it comes out that he lost all their money in risky investments. I might believe that this close-knit group would abandon a child because of the sins of her father… but I do not believe that the Greek Orthodox Church would refuse to hold a funeral mass for one of its members. And, again, the group chasing Anna has a “destiny” in mind for her that seems perilously close to being a cliché.
I was disappointed by the direction the story went and by a predictable ending. This would be the 2.5 star part of the book. Ultimately, though, I can recommend The Wolf in the Attic for the beauty and moodiness of the first half, and the loving descriptions of Oxford and its environs. I appreciate Kearney trying something different, even if it was not a complete success for me. The voice of Anna is authentic and inviting; she sounds like a real little girl with a real life and real problems. Don’t read this as a dark fantasy; read it as a character study and a love letter to the city of Oxford.