A review by Nalini Haynes
★★★☆☆ three out of five stars
UPDATE: author tweeted a response to this review, below.
Some spoilers and trigger alert (sexual abuse)
A literary dystopian novel, Wolves focuses on the landscape as allegory for characters while communicating their fear of the Fall of civilisation.
Conrad, the protagonist, continually ponders the canalisation of the landscape, how rivers and train lines are channelled into culverts and canals. This appears to be an allegory for Conrad’s own lack of agency, emphasised by the absurd lengths to which Conrad goes to avoid both conflict and facing the obvious.
Conrad is in love with his best friend Michael. Then Conrad is attracted to Michael’s wife although description of their sex scene reveals Conrad’s underlying motives. Later it appears Conrad may have fallen in love with Michael’s wife; as they say on social media “it’s complicated”.
In the first half of Wolves, technology is in the background while real landscape is in the foreground. At about the half-way mark a side character instigates conflict for the first time; this presages a change in tone of the novel. After this point of conflict, technology takes center stage with the real landscape in the background.
The primary characters still avoid conflict although tension builds while Conrad investigates his mother’s death (at last). This investigation is enmeshed with an incident where a pervert exposed himself to Conrad when Conrad was a teenager; this story is told anew, belatedly expanding to reveal an unlikely story of sexual abuse (more on this soon).
As years pass, characters’ lives become more entwined, more complex and yet they still avoid conflict, avoid the obvious. Eventually the rivers break their banks, flooding overwhelms the canals, symbolic of the Fall of civilisation. Surrealistic destruction of a house parallels the flooding. The Fall was more realised in the landscape than in civilisation or character’s lives and yet their lives changed after the Fall, when passive-aggressive behaviour eventually brings conflict to a low, slow boil before an unsatisfactory ‘resolution’. It could be argued this is like life and yet the point of conflict leading to this resolution is unlikely in real life.
Conrad is an exasperating protagonist, difficult to care about – either love or hate – because he is inconstant, lacking inclination to attempt agency in his own life. While I enjoyed exploration of an unusual sexual triangle, the usual features of such triangles – passion and romance – were notable by their absence. The resolution of the triangle, especially the dialogue during the resolution, was disappointing: an obvious point was forgotten at a crucial time. It may have been a means of avoiding conflict. Again.
Wolves explores the world leading to Google Glass and beyond but this technology is flawed. Blind men are given vests they wear against their skin to help them see and yet they’re hooked up to cameras and goggles; the function of the vest – apart from a noise-maker intended as a plot device – is never clear. At one stage I thought the vests may have been like a pin sculpture, creating images against the person’s skin, yet this does not fit (goggles plus lying on his back with the vest ‘seeing’ on the back).
Late in the novel Google Glass (never named as such) is developed to manipulate the brain via radio waves, selectively broadcasting sight, sound and sensation directly to one man’s brain in a block of flats. Hacking the Google Glass technology, or at least assuming his personal technology was hacked, would have made more sense. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments below.)
Evil albino trope
The blind pervert has ‘albino-white hair’. This is emphasised repeatedly; it isn’t until late in the novel that his hair is referred to as ‘shock white’ and this is well after establishing that this guy molested Conrad and probably murdered his mother.
Why albino white? Using albino-imagery to create a sense of ‘other’ in a villain is lazy writing.
If the guy was an albino, he wouldn’t have been placed on the front lines of a war. He would have been a danger to himself and everyone else. If I was in a combat situation, unless the uniforms were markedly different in colour, I wouldn’t be able to tell friend from foe at 20 metres and I have quite good eyesight for an albino. If this character was an albino, he would have been visually impaired before being sent to the front lines and therefore wouldn’t have seen action. If he was blinded and his hair turned ‘shock white’ because of what happened on the front lines then the author has been deeply offensive by emphasising an unwarranted association with a vulnerable, despised minority group.
A hostel supporting vision impaired men is key to the story. Unfortunately the author does not appear to have researched vision impairment.
Men bump around and get lost in the confines of the hostel but they don’t use mobility canes. Sighted carers watch them yet leave these men alone to suffer indignity and stressful disorientation.
A man who cannot navigate the hostel goes out into a nature reserve with neither clear paths nor safety-rails, using his vest; the same vest that couldn’t help him in the hostel.
This man cannot differentiate between men and women because the images he’s given to masturbate to are only 12 pixel images. This same man can see well enough to recognise Conrad’s mother and mistake Conrad for his mother because Conrad looks so much like his mother. This man can apparently also see well enough to navigate a nature reserve, gauge distance in order to grab and capture a teenage boy after exposing himself to said teenage boy, who has had ample opportunity to run away and hide. Apparently Simon Ings is unfamiliar with the game Blind Man’s Bluff.
Wolves is an entirely unflattering depiction of humanity – people are the wolves – but Ings’s inadequate research into vision impairment coupled with his evil albino trope particularly rankled. The prose was interesting, particularly the use of the landscape as a character. Unfortunately I cared more about the landscape than I did the protagonist whose lack of agency and pathological conflict avoidance sapped the narrative of momentum. Technological developments, from the vests to selective broadcasts, lacked cohesive plausibility. I confess I’m not a huge fan of ‘Literature’ as a genre; readers who enjoy Literature (as opposed to literature or dystopian novels) will probably enjoy Wolves far more than I.