I don’t think there are words to express just how much I do not care about Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic.
The signs were, it has to be said, inauspicious. I got an uncorrected proof copy of the book in my Nine Worlds goodie bag this year; it was actually published last year. I would submit that if you are giving away uncorrected proof copies of your book for free a year after it was published then something has gone very wrong with your marketing strategy.
Notwithstanding this, the novel itself starts promisingly enough. Anna Francis is a young Greek refugee from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna; she and her father have fled to Oxford, a city where Anna meets Lewis and Tolkien briefly and randomly. Lonely and unhappy and dreaming of adventure, Anna runs into the woods, where she stumbles upon a group of Romany people, and…well, that’s where it all starts going a little bit wrong.
Now, by setting this story specifically in Oxford, and, further, name-dropping Lewis and Tolkien (I will admit to a little fangirl thrill when “Tollers” arrived on stage, as it were), Kearney’s obviously evoking a particular kind of story. They’re stories heavily based on folklore, on magic that’s tied very specifically to British landscapes; stories that feel true because they encode traditions we in Britain have been familiar with all our lives. And, sure enough, Anna’s travels with the Romany people sees her trekking across the landscapes of Oxfordshire, experiencing the terror of what might as well be one of Tolkien’s barrow-wights, taking shelter from mysterious shadowy figures called the Roadmen in stone circles. Putting Anna, a refugee, an immigrant, into this profoundly British narrative landscape is a really interesting thing to do; it makes a point about whose stories get told, and it has the potential to generate interference within these traditional narratives.
Unfortunately, Kearney doesn’t seem all that interested in actually scrutinising any of the chauvinistic bullshittery that often underlies those stories. The presentation of the Romany people in particular is hugely problematic. Kearney does give us a disclaimer of sorts which is presumably aimed at deflecting such criticism:
We’m of an old and wandering folk girl, a tribe as ancient as you Greeks – or the Jew-folk too, comes to that. The ignorant calls us Romani, but we ain’t the same as the travellin’ people, though we has dealings with ’em. Egypt is where our kind hails from, in the old, old part o’ the world.
Let’s unpack some of the problems in that passage, shall we? I’m sure we have nothing better to do with our Monday evening.
Firstly: it doesn’t matter that Kearney tells us that his “old and wandering folk” aren’t Romany people; we’re still going to read and remember them as Romany people, because all the traditional fictional markers that say to us “these are Romany people” are there – their existence in the woods and fields, on the edge of civilisation; their nomadic lifestyle; their exoticised mysticism. It goes without saying that these markers are othering and harmful. Secondly, there is just no excuse for that cod-dialect: not only is it deeply irritating to read, it’s, similarly, a constant and patronising reminder of otherness. Thirdly, that description of Egypt as “an old, old part o’ the world” (what does that even mean?) is massively exoticising, drawing as it does on the tired trope of mystical Egypt, Egypt as repository of ancient wisdom which is now to be trotted out for the benefit of the West. It is racism under a veneer of false respect.
To cap it all off, this “old and wandering folk” turn out, in a bizarre and totally unforeshadowed twist, to be the villains of the piece – predatory werewolves who’ve spent the whole novel deceiving Anna. I mean, really? Isn’t this one of the most obvious racist tropes there is? Surely someone should have spotted it before this went to print? Maybe in an uncorrected proof copy?
I also want to talk (briefly) about how Kearney treats femininity here. A fairly significant plot point in the novel is Anna getting her first period, while she’s on the run from the Roadmen, accompanied only by – how hilariously awkward! – A Boy. This is how he reacts (after handing her a woollen sock to soak it up with, which sounds like the most uncomfortable thing):
Don’t be looking at me to tell you more. It’s not a man’s business…T’ain’t my place.
That’s it? This girl is cold and in pain and scared of this new thing that’s happening to her and you give her a sock and that’s it?
And then, the Romany women explain to her later on:
We is all daughters o’ the moon Anna. We feel the waxing and waning of it in our bodies the way no man ever can. ‘Tis our gift and our curse. We brings forth life, but must bleed for it. Blood must be paid for everything.
This has quite clearly been written by someone who has no fucking idea what menstruating is actually like, and moreover has not bothered to ask anyone who does know. Menstruation is not a mystical or powerful thing (I promise!): it is uncomfortable, inconvenient and deeply unpleasant. Pretty much every woman in the world (and I’m generalising about gender roles here, I know, but this is a point that I feel needs to be made) is surrounded by men who don’t want to engage with the actual lived truth of what they experience each and every month of their lives; they’d rather ignore it altogether, or, as here, romanticise it in imagery that casts women as other, unknowable, participants in some secret and threatening mystery of life and death. As with Kearney’s presentation of the Romany people, this is discrimination masquerading as respect. We do need more women who menstruate in fantasy; we don’t need it like this.
I just…don’t understand how any of this book is supposed to hang together. Kearney doesn’t seem to know what story he’s trying to tell: a heavily symbolic tale about femininity? A realist story about being a refugee in Britain? A fantasy about a magical Oxford? The only way to describe the result is: “a mess”.