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Review: In the Wolf’s Mouth, by Adam Foulds
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 323 pp. $26

I picked up In the Wolf’s Mouth because I saw it on a list of nominees for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction (alongside The Lie, by Helen Dunmore, which I loved), and because the setting and premise intrigued me. In the Wolf’s Mouth takes place in rural Sicily shortly after the Allies liberated the island during World War II, which I’ve never read about, so I was curious. The title, the jacket flap says, evokes a Sicilian proverb about good luck, intriguing in itself. What’s more, author Adam Foulds supposes that as the dust settles after Mussolini’s fall, the new Allied occupation overlords, dressed in crisp uniforms and holding army-issued manuals, will inevitably trust the wrong people, to great cost. That’s a strong, plausible premise, a good starting point. Finally, Foulds is a poet as well as a novelist, and it shows:

Randall had the look of poverty, grey and small. His body was tightly knit, with jerking reflexes. In his bleak wrists and the clever joints of his fingers, Ray saw Randall’s grip on things. Firing at the range, Randall produced the quick rhythmical chuck-chuck sound of a well-handled weapon.

I only wish that the novel lived up to its assets or even followed through on its premise. Instead, the narrative focuses on the back stories of the characters who will meet at a Sicilian village, so that their brief interactions become almost an anticlimax. It’s as if Foulds wants you to forget notions of plot and concentrate on the people, how they got to be where and who they are–predator, prey, or both, depending on the circumstances. That’s an intriguing concept, if a bit heavy-handed and authorial, though I might have gone along for the ride had the characters been better company.

Among the Sicilians, the most important are Cirò Albanese, a mafioso who’s returned with the army after having fled the island twenty years before, and Angilù Cassini, a shepherd. I wanted to know them more deeply, especially Cirò, since he’s a mover and shaker and rather repellent–to sense what made him that way, maybe–but he’s more a collection of traditional ideas about blood, power, and money than a real person.

Two British soldiers and an American paratrooper, Avola, Sicily, July 1943 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Two British soldiers and an American paratrooper, Avola, Sicily, July 1943 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The best-drawn character is Will Walker, a British soldier with the occupation army. The jacket describes him as “callow,” but that’s soft soap; Will’s a bigot, a social snob, self-absorbed, supercilious, and always looking to do great things, which can be dangerous for bystanders. At one point, he decries (to himself) the soldiers who line up with a can of rations, the only payment needed to hire a prostitute on this hungry island. Another day, though, he joins the line, because the young woman is so beautiful, he thinks. But Will’s a complete character, so he has a redeeming trait: an urge to fight back against corruption and treachery.

The other character who drew me is Ray, an American soldier unhinged by combat. Foulds captures his sensitive, private nature very well, poignantly demonstrating how soldiers with those qualities suffer intensely in any army. Also, both Ray and Will are short of stature, and since I am too, I was quick to notice how the author figures that into their psychological makeup. Ray feels innately like prey, whereas Will pushes others aside, two faces of the same coin.

Will complains that the Americans he meets aren’t real; they’re like film versions of themselves, almost parodies. I wouldn’t go that far, but they don’t seem quite fleshed out, either. Ray, supposedly from New York, could be from any American city where Italian immigrants settled. There’s no particular rhythm or outlook or New York-ness to him, and his speech patterns (as with the other Americans) struck me as generic.

So I hope the prize committee passes on In the Wolf’s Mouth. If you’d like to see my review of The Lie, you’ll find it here. The whole list of nominees is here.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.