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BOOK REVIEW: The Wolf Trial by Neil Mackay

September 8, 2016 2:00 pm

Out Now

Publushed by Freight Books. More information here. 

Review by Christina Jane


the_wolf_trial-270The Wolf Trial is an amazing book. Each page holds great meaning and interest for the reader, and I was shocked to discover how much of the narrative is based on a true story. Things get even more interesting when we discover that the author himself wasn’t aware of the non-fictional foundations of his novel. The content of The Wolf Trial is derived from notebooks left to Mackay following the death of a former teacher, making the material all the more mysterious, even for its writer.

But the fact that this could be a true story is also frightening. Worryingly, it’s not too difficult to imagine that the people of The Wolf Trial truly believed in werewolves (given the context of religious fanaticism in the 1600s). The disturbing aspects of the book arise when we witness the drastic measures villages would go to in order to get rid of the evil. For example, the sheriff of the town accompanied by a few other notable figures of the village, decide to bait the wolf by leaving a six year old child in the woods.

The Wolf Trial opens with an old man, who subsequently becomes the device with which we are taken through the narrative. Initially, he talks about his life, how he was lucky enough to go to a great university and eventually become a teacher there. He also alludes to the prominence of a date – the 24th June – throughout his life, going as far as to predict that he will die on that day, on his 80th birthday. He states that if he stops doing everything his death will occur more immediately, so instead he decided to write a novel, but that the only story he can tell would be from his past. The old man is an effective motif in the sense that it makes the book seem more real. It also gives character to the writer and his material. As mentioned previously, the source material already blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Giving the writing-voice an identity adds another exciting element to the book.

The book is highly influenced by religion. There are numerous chapters that don’t seem to add to the story, during which the protagonist talks at length about various aspects of the church. He makes it clear, for many reasons, that he does not think highly of god or religious fanatics, definitively stating on a number of occasions that all they cause is harm.. His opinions are mirrored by the action of the later chapters. If the people of the town had listened to the law instead of religion, considerably less innocent people would have died. Mackay’s writing also seems strongest when dealing with theological questions. Indeed, one of my favourite ever quotes can be found in The Wolf Trial and is one such example of Mackay’s criticism of God:

‘God may be all powerful and all knowing, but he is not all loving. Either that or he is indeed all loving but he is not powerful at all.’

At the heart of the book is the question of whether Stumph is a werewolf. The weight of argument seems to shift from chapter to chapter. Personally, at the beginning, I was inclined to believe that he was and that the book would take a supernatural direction, but the narrative withholds the reveal until the very end. As to not spoil the finale for potential readers, I’ll defer from commenting on the conclusion. However, the book is more about your own interpretation of events and decisions; your opinion of what is real and what is fantasy; of whether the narrator can be trusted or whether his opinions have been poisoned by his strong atheistic beliefs. At the book’s conclusion, whether you believe Stumph is a werewolf or not, the moral questions you will have had to ask during The Wolf Trial are enough to make you want more of Mackay’s fascinating narrative.


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