The Wolf and His Elf
Fairy tales--and those who enjoy them--fall into two distinct camps. There are the frothy, don’t-worry-because-nothing-too-terrible-could-ever-possibly-happen stories, with their shiny-happy people and dreamy, feel-good endings. A bit of harmless frippery, if you will;
pleasant but predictable, they’re perfect for Pollyannas and anyone in need of a few warm fuzzies.
And then there are those tales which avoid all light like the plague, opting instead to hurtle straight into the darkness. Here we find the ugly, wicked, and terrifying, with their nightmare-on-acid settings and less-than-peachy-keen endings. Unsurprisingly, it is these latter--the moody, atmospheric stories--which really resonate with me. (Well, what did you expect? One look at my über-furry boycat, and it’s obvious he’s over-qualified to provide all the warm fuzzies I’ll ever need. ;))
To say I was excited to hear about a new, modern-day fairy tale coming down the pike, then, would be something of an understatement. (The fact that it was penned by an award-winning author with a prodigious number of works already under his belt? If I’d needed any more persuasion, that would surely have done it.) I bring you Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter...
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Once upon a time, there lived a boy who became a man and found all of his dreams coming true. Raised the son of an humble woodcutter in the wilds of Cumbria, young Wolf Hadda decided to leave his bucolic home in order to make his way in the world... with the hope that he might one day claim the hand of the fairest maiden in all the land--Imogen, the beautiful and headstrong princess who lived in the mansion on the other side of the woods.
Luck was with the young Wolf, who--after mysteriously disappearing for a few years--became a hugely-successful entrepreneur, with a business boasting publicly-traded stocks and offices around the world. The fair princess agreed to marry the newly-flush and important Wolf, and before long their beautiful London home was graced with a little princess of their own to spoil and adore. Friends gravitated towards them; they were a powerful and handsome couple, and everyone wanted to bask in their presence and to share in their good fortune.
Little did Wolf know it was all but a house of cards, nor that it takes but a mere knock at the door to topple such a flimsy structure...
When we pick up the story, Wolf has just been accused of a heinous crime and is subsequently unceremoniously hauled off to jail. He‘s furious, of course, but assumes the police will realize their mistake soon enough and release him. That isn’t to be, however; before the day is done, they find more than enough evidence to back up the claims. Wolf, it becomes clear, isn’t going anywhere.
Matters only continue to get worse. No one--not his friends, not his employees nor business associates, not even his own family--seems willing to believe his protestations of innocence. Even after being seriously wounded in a freak accident while in custody, Wolf receives no pity. He convalesces in hospital until he’s ambulatory, then it’s a quick trial and off to prison he goes, to serve out a lengthy sentence. That fairy tale life he was living? Up in a puff of smoke. And from that point forward, the formerly-charmed Wolf retreats into a den of silence, which no one is able to break.
Until seven years later, that is, when--for reasons of his own--he decides to open up to Alva Ozigbo, the young psychiatrist newly-appointed to the prison. After a rocky start, the two of them make progress... so much so, in fact, that they develop a tentative friendship based on an uneasy-but-mutual respect. When Wolf comes up for parole, Alva (or Elf, as he calls her) persuades the board that he is well and truly rehabilitated and safe to return to society.
The outside waiting for Wolf is a vastly-different place from the one he inhabited during his on-top-of-the-world fairy tale years, though. This world seems a brutally-grim one; he has no money, his companies are gone, his (former) friends have shunned him, and his wife has left him to pursue greener pastures. It is also to this same unhappy tableau that the Woodcutter returns.
During Wolf’s disappearance as a young man bent on making his fortune, he was known not by his name, but rather, simply as the Woodcutter. The jobs for which the Woodcutter was paid handsomely were on the far side of the law... and now he’s back in action once again, this time seeking revenge on those who engineered his downfall.
Can Elf’s belief in Wolf chip away at the Woodcutter persona and stop him before it’s too late and the quest for vengeance has ruined whatever good remains in him? Or, will each swing of the Woodcutter’s ax bring him closer and closer to the jagged edge from which there is no return... leaving only the grimmest of endings to this fairy tale?
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It took me several pages to get into The Woodcutter, and I was getting a wee bit worried. (Past that point, it quickly became apparent how absurd that fear was--but for those first few pages, it was a little dicey.) Once things started rolling, though, and I understood who the players were and got a handle on what was going on, I was all in; this is one of those rare books with an almost magical power to suck you in and then keep you in a state of nervous dread and anticipation until the very last page.
Everything--for me--is “right” about this book. Complex (but realistic) characters, which don’t rely on easy stereotypes for categorization. Believable emotions and reactions, which ring true to each character’s nature. Fully-realized plotting, which takes numerous and unpredictable twists, turns, and detours... but winds up precisely where it feels as though it ought. And everything, everywhere, gloriously dark and broody.
Speaking of atmosphere, this one does it brilliantly (or so I’m assuming, having never been to Cumbria--or England at large, for that matter). Hill offers a stunning depiction of his native land, from the lushness of the densely-wooded forests to the dangerous-but-undeniable allure of the rocky cliffs and craggy hills surrounding it all; from the clear icy-blue of the skies to the crisp bite of the cold air and the frigid crunch of the layers of snow and ice. The attitudes and responses of small-town folk are spot-on, too, with their wary distrust of outsiders and their hearty (if unobtrusive) support, once earned.
As for how to classify The Woodcutter? It’s a fabulous mystery, certainly, and a cracking-good psychological suspense. It is, by turns, humorous and shocking and unnerving. It's a very human story, about falling in--and out--of love, about scaling the peaks and plummeting to the very bottom. It's a modern work, with classical sensibilities. And, it is a lyrical piece, full of rich prose and immense beauty... as befits, of course, any true fairy tale worth its salt.
It is, in a word, perfection.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 (out of 5) Enthusiastic Mousies!!
Note: The Woodcutter will be released August 2, 2011.