In the interest of fairness, I’ll tie my colours to the mast from the outset here – A Girl Called Wolf by Stephen Swartz is possibly one of the most dire books I have ever read… and I’ve read a few.
What makes things worse for this coming-of-age novel - “inspired by true life” (what does that even mean?) of a young Inuit girl, Wolf , raised in isolation by her mother in the wilds of Greenland - is that it’s actually pretty good for the first third.
It effectively blends dark magic and natural mysticism with the harsh reality of life in the Arctic, hunting and hunted by both wild animals and equally wild humans. This life gets harsher for Wolf when her ‘mama’ dies, and scenes of this young child stubbornly trying to exist alone in her world, with only her dwindling dog pack for company and survival, are heartbreaking.
Inevitably modern life, of sorts, intrudes from the small village (yet a metropolis to Wolf) of Tasiilaq – whose inhabitants come first to abuse her, and others later to try to ‘save’ by taking her to the relative civilisation of the village. Unable to adapt Wolf rebels and is eventually shipped off to a Danish Catholic mission in Greenland by the exacerbated villagers. Again, her gradual growing awareness that her old life is gone, coupled with her telling the youngsters tales of her previous life in the Arctic which they can only comprehend as fantasies, has its poignancy. Then one day a letter arrives, addressed to her, that radically changes her life once more.
At this point the plot, the narrative, the quality all take a sudden and bizarre nosedive. Her emergence into ‘big city’ life could be fascinating but here all other elements of the plot are pushed to the background as the novel becomes a series of in-depth descriptions of her and her peers increasingly adventurous sex life. Whilst I have no issue with diversity of sexual expression and do not believe in judging and denigrating individual life choices of any sort, I do have an issue with bad writing! I just felt this particular strand dominated the rest of the book – it was as if someone else had taken over the authorship at this point, or the editor had resigned! Following this litany - and believe me, after the eighth or ninth repetitive description of cunnilingus it does become a litany! - where Wolf becomes pregnant with the gay man in her bisexual ‘menage a trois’ of lovers, and moves in with her sister who has a baby by an unknown Chinese father, who took part in one of her and her husband’s regular (presumably unprotected) orgies, the narrative takes a few attempts at bringing an extra dimension to Wolf as a mother. The rest of the book. However, flails around in an embarrassing series of increasingly unlikely events – its tone veering from Raging Bull to John Le Carre at his least believable - which stretch the tagline ‘based on true life’ until it snaps…
As you can tell, I really didn’t like the book at all, especially as it showed such promise, leaving the reader feel even more short-changed at the end. It’s only other saving grace is that the increasingly demented narrative feels rushed, almost dashed off, as if the author was as keen to get the book over with as I was. I was relieved when the book was finally put out of its misery.
There you go, can’t win them all. As the number of remaining books on my journey dwindle to single figures I am hoping for better in my last stretch….
Next up is Iceland, where I’ll be splitting my stay between the remote port of Ísaforþur and Hesteyri, an abandoned and remote fishing village in the northwestern fjords, with the supernatural-tinged Icelandic noir novel I Remember You, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.
Having prudently considered time and money (although not environmental) constraints by travelling via various anonymous airports recently, I decide to push the boat out and take one of a growing number of ‘luxury’ Arctic cruises departing Greenland and its neighbours.
I fork out an eye-watering € 7,201 for a 15-day cruise on the MS Bremen travelling from Port Sisimuit in Kangerlussuaq to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. The cruise is worthwhile; a reminder that the journey is as important as the destination – perhaps something I recently lost sight of. There is a map of the cruise route below.
The cabins are luxurious given my recent trip across the Arctic and the panoramic windows give a great - and fully heated! – view as we skirt the coast of Greenland down the East and up a sizeable stretch of the West. MS Bremen is a German ship so travel literature is in German but all the staff and presenters speak fluent English. There are also limitless soft drinks for the minibar…
You can watch the spectacular scenery up close from the onboard cameras or get amongst things such as the ice fjord – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – where glistening ice masses tower into the sky. At Disko Bay, I take time to experience the “water ballet” of drifting icebergs, which have broken off from the local glacier, up-close on a Zodiac ride.
The downsides of modern encroachment can be seen at Arsukfjord and its abandoned mine, counterpointed with natural beauty at Prins Christian Sund. We even drop anchor briefly at Tasiilaq, the tiny settlement where Wolf made her way after her mama’s death. There is the usual contrived, zoo-like display of the native inhabitants of Ittoqqortoormiit, one of Greenland’s most isolated settlements. The inhabitants provide insights into their lives and traditions, but there’s a tinge of sadness, exploitation even, here – harsh and difficult lives presented for the entertainment of rich tourists; I feel uncomfortable in being part of this uneven interaction – repeated with indigenous peoples the world over.
From there more zodiac rides through the glaciers and fjords and then we head out of the Arctic circle once more for the two-day trip to Iceland’s biggest city Reykjavik (133,000 inhabitants). The small town I am visiting is further north to the north than the capital – isafjordur, population 2,600. Once a thriving fishing port, the town still has a working harbour for ferries and the odd cruise ship. Whilst not on our itinerary the captain is good enough to drop anchor as we have made up time on the sea crossing. I put ashore on a zodiac and make my way up into this quaint-looking town. It looks like I am just in time, as dark clouds are forming, and freezing gusts blow snow particles into my face. I have a feeling I am about to see why Iceland got its name…