Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (Rebellion/Solaris) is a coming-of age-story. The publishers suggest it will appeal to people who love the work of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and I agree. Curiously enough, a fictionalised version of the creator of the Narnia novels makes an appearance as a character, albeit highly disguised as a type of mentor figure for the novel’s young – just turning 13 – heroine.
Set in 1920s Oxford (them home to C.S. Lewis and Tolkien) the story featuures Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee trying to escape the grim reality of her new life. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll, Penelope. Following the Turkish invasion of her homeland she and her father are now refugees.
In her cold new house, her homeland beside Homer’s wine-dark sea now little more than a dream, with only her memories to warm her, she feels lost and alone. But one winter day she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. Another connection with the Narnia stories is that she has to go through a gateway (in this case a door sealed behind wallpaper) to find the place.
At first an indistinct presence in the attic, the thing in the attic proves to be a shapeshifter in wolf form, whom she later meets with his travelling family (not Roma, as they clarify, but Egyptians) as a boy called Luca.
The travellers, lead by a powerful witch queen, are being hunted by another race of beings, whom they hold at bay for a time. They try to have Anna join their ranks, but to what end?
Evolving at an admirably slow pace, the magical elements not appearing until late in the narrative, the Wolf in the Attic cast an hypnotic spell. It handles realistic subject matter such as the onset of puberty and the politics of immigration extremely well. Against the background of the current Syrian refugee crisis, the novel also feels highly relevant to our own times.
The story has some great twists and turns, and no one is who they appear to be, werewolves to one side.
Another writer with whom one might draw comparisons, though I have not seen mentioned anywhere, is Alan Garner, whose rural English fantasies such as The Owl Service and others are so grounded in reality that everything that happens feels believable – and, as is also the case with Kearney – written with a poetic sensibility yet with great clarity and economy of words.
I was unfamiliar with Kearney’s work up until now – it’s always a joy to discover another who takes you by surprise like this, and then to discover he has a good body of great work out there already. Note to self: read more Kearney!