Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5)
When I got home from work yesterday about four, I was sleep by five and woke up around nine-thirty. I finished the first half of You season four... then I opened the Kindle app on my phone and started Wolfsong. I opened it on my phone because I thought I'd fall asleep immediately - no need to break out the iPad for a few minutes.
But it's 8AM. I'm sitting at my coffee table. Home from work due to a (possible) impending snow storm, and I haven't slept. My phone is on the table, but I keep looking up like I might find the hard copy of Wolfsong sitting here too. I tend to pile books up and carry them around the apartment with me. Little comfort piles. Instinctively, I'm looking for Wolfsong.
I didn't know it when I requested the ARC on Netgalley, but this is apparently a rerelease of a completed series. On one hand, I wish I would've found it sooner, on another there's nothing like discovering a book you really love for the first time.
In Wolfsong, we live in the head of a boy called Ox. It's visceral. The writing style changes as he does. The structure of his mind, his thoughts, and his beliefs play out on the page. He starts as a little child, snapshots of pivotal moments in his life. These are the moments, good and bad, that stick out as you grow older. The ones that are stamped on you, even as the years blur. Ox's father is a drunk who's ashamed of his family and his life. He tells Ox he's dumb and slow, and he grows frustrated when Ox doesn't understand that his father is leaving them.
Ox's narrative is rarely straight-forward. He takes time to process what people say and do, almost like he can't understand what's being done and said. He's been taught and treated like he doesn't understand much, and so he believes it. But believes it in a way that stops him from really contemplating, in the moment, whether he understands or not. There's something about Ox in those moments that make the reader sad and heartbroken for him because he doesn't see his own potential and intelligence. He's been taught not to even consider that he might have either of those attributes.
When Ox is sixteen and walking home from school, he stops at the mouth of his dead-end street. There's a boy standing there. He's bright and bold the way most little boys are, curious with a lack of boundaries. This boy is speaking so much and so fast, asking more than listening, that Ox gets flooded with so much. Even though Ox doesn't say much, this boy is enamored with him. He takes Ox by the hand to the only other house on Ox's street. It's been empty for years, but now it's teeming with the Bennett family. They don't question Joe when he leads Ox through the door.
Ox had always been a little alienated from others his own age, always a step outside of everything. People looked and treated him as though there was something different about him, something slow to understand. Kind and cruel people alike. But the Bennetts immediately crowd him, offering affection and acceptance to a boy who doesn't understand why they would even think to treat him as noteworthy.
The relationships between Ox and each of the Bennetts is so emotional and individual. Kelly and Carter are the two older Bennett boys - Ox's age. The seem to adopt him, encompass him, almost revere him in a way that makes it clear they know he's their equal, and they make it clear that everyone else should too. These three boys were likely my favorite secondary relationship in the book.
The way that Klune builds friendships and affection manages to be gradual even when it's sudden. This is because of the way Ox views everything, the way he thinks it through, accepts it but is still confused, still believes what his father said about Ox not being able to understand. So Ox thinks he doesn't understand why they want him, even as he becomes an integral part of their lives.
Ox grows up with the Bennetts, tethered to them by Joe. Joe who clings to Ox in such an earnest way. Needing him as a friend, claiming him against his brothers. And it's clear that the Bennetts all love Ox; they understand him, but he's still Joe's. Carter and Kelly have a fierce loyalty to their little brother, and that spills into the way they love and lookout for Ox.
There is just something about this book -- the tone, the gradualness, being in Ox's head, knowing what's going on, what will happen, but watching Ox start to realize what he already knows. He's so unassuming and genuine that every moment when Ox realizes something about them and about himself had me smiling, had me tearing up, had me laughing. There's just something about the way this book builds, softly. It's the same way the friendship and feelings grow between Ox and Joe. Joe who claimed Ox at ten years old. Joe who watches Ox live his life, watches Ox not understand, waits for Ox while everyone else seems to know.
And when Joe is forced to leave Ox behind? God, there's something in the anguish, in how bereft Ox feels, but how he grows into a man, into someone else's shoes (realizing they were his to fill), into his position in that family, separate from the boy who gave it to him.
This book is somehow slow-paced, but not slow. It kept me up all night as I flipped through the years of Ox's life. Even though I understood the plot from the synopsis, it's a shallow description of so much more. The heart of this book is in the relationships between Ox and people, not the action-based plot itself. The way he begins to accept and know himself, both within the Bennett family and without. After meeting them, he begins to look at his life outside of them and understand everything he's already had. The things he knew deep down about the people already in his life that hadn't really resonated with him until the Bennetts.
Joe walked Ox into his family, but Ox already had a family of his own, and Ox finally recognizes this. As Ox becomes more aware of himself, separate from how people always thought about and treated him, he's able to see how everyone orbits him and always has.
Having this book as a single point of view - Ox's - makes it feel all-encompassing. I don't think it would work otherwise, because it's the story of Ox's growth, his understanding of his relationship to the world. If we start to see what the others think about him from their POV, it detracts from slow-build of Ox's mind -- him learning that he has gone through life not questioning any of it - not even that he's not bright or capable. He always thought he didn't have the capacity to understand or to express himself. But he realizes that it's not that he doesn't have the words, but he has too many of them too fast.
He changes so slowly, but it's so sweet and endearing, and we're left with a man that is so, so much. A man that is capable, loyal, instinctively intelligent, a fierce leader, and still unassuming. There's never a moment where he's suddenly angry about others' perception of him and his resulting perception of himself. He simply grows, realizing that the people that matter have always seen him. He was taught that others merely tolerated him. It was affection and acceptance that he craved as a sixteen year old boy being led by the hand into a broader understanding of his life.
This book is not without its faults. Early on, the r-word is used as a slur and insult toward Ox to convey how people act toward him. Its use is (unfortunately) realistic because the characters saying it are caricatures of how those kinds of shitty people would really act, but it felt unnecessary. There are ways to characterize and create the same impact without that word.
Something else to consider when reading this book - although maybe not a 'fault' because its inclusion is necessary to the story - but there are allusions to rape and child abuse that occur continuously through this novel. It's all in the past, prior to the start of the book, but it's something that everyone in the family is grappling with. Its repercussions are a big part of the book. Personally, I really only have a problem with including these topics/events in books is when they're used a plot device, a quick and flip event that isn't necessary to the book. Wolfsong, in turn, is a story of survival, recovery, and support.
Ultimately, I love this book. I don't care that it's a rerelease and not a debut. It's all-encompassing, visceral, heart-wrenching, and beautiful. It's a difficult story to tell, but it was written so well.
Now I'm reading the synopsis for book two on Amazon and hoping it's not a flipped-POV of the same timeline/events. It says it's available on Kindle, but it might be an earlier version, and I'd rather wait for the rerelease to see if it's an updated story. I typically don't like series that change POV characters with each sequel, but I care so much about so many of these characters that I'd love the timeline to continue through their minds and experiences.
This is one book that I need to sit with for awhile. Just to feel it out. To feel how it made me feel. I almost don't want to read anything else in this world/series, because I don't want anything to ruin this.
The official release is July 4th, 2023.