Wolf at eighteen is a loner, child of a dead mother and a waster father, mourning the loss of his best friend, Byrd. One day he sets off up the mountain he and Byrd used to hike together with the intention of killing himself. Instead a chance encounter means he and three women become lost.
The frame for the story is a letter from Wolf to his son, who is about to go to college. He is going to finally tell his wife and son the whole truth about what happened on the mountain. This tells us not only that Wolf made it back, but that he went on to have a very different life from the one he led before, and to give his son the kind of life he never had. He also tells the reader, right at the beginning, that not all of the three women survived.
This is clever because it invites you not only to speculate about which of the women will die, but to consider, horribly, who you want it to be. And even while you know that there is no causal link between who ‘deserves’ to live and who actually does, having those thoughts makes you complicit.
Wolf’s narration weaves together events on the mountain with the story of his life up to that point. It is well paced and dramatic. The characters are interesting and complex, the humour darkly dry. Wolf’s father Frankie is both recognisable as a type and unique in his casual cruelty and neglect of his son. The scenes on the mountain feel convincing and the plot twists escalate the story. Occasionally a character does something stupid that just happens to crank the tension even higher, but given that they are cold, exhausted and dehydrated that is within the bounds of plausibility.
The author asks some subtle questions about the nature of belief, of life’s purpose and spirituality (look out for the character names) but she leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions. She keeps you guessing right till the end. She wraps up the loose ends (perhaps a little too neatly, given how unflinching the rest of the story is). I was gripped the whole way through and loved the voice of Wolf, with its heartbreaking mix of nihilism and hope.
I received a copy of The Mountain Story from the publisher via Netgalley.
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