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In the Wolf’s Mouth, by Adam Foulds, Cape, RRP£16.99, 336 pages
Adam Foulds writes like an angel about devilish things – madness, corruption, murder, rape. He is fearsomely unafraid of the darkness within humans and the darkness they are capable of creating around them. The supple, sensuous beauty of his prose is bewitching: like the helpless children of Hamelin we follow wherever he chooses to lead, however horrifying the terrain, enchanted by the unstoppable flow of rich, unforgettable images.
Foulds’s 2009 novel, The Quickening Maze, which won the Encore Award and the European Union Prize for Literature, conjured the world of the poet John Clare in all its sanity and insanity, and displayed Foulds’s ability to capture both the tangible and intangible with crystalline precision and deceptive simplicity. That same startling talent is manifest in his new novel from the first word to the last. The “pimpled flesh” of a newly plucked partridge gives way to “a soldier spread open, daubed across the rocks”; a crow “flying in wide, evasive circles” yields to planes that “went into their dive like something sliding off a table, falling then powering down”.
From one kind of lunacy to another, In the Wolf’s Mouth plunges straight into the senseless chaos of the second world war. It tells the stories of two young men, Will Walker, an English field security officer, and Ray Marfione, an Italian-American infantryman, who find themselves serving, albeit in different capacities, in the North African campaign of 1942. Ambitious, naive Will is increasingly becoming a security risk as he races impetuously into situations beyond his understanding. When he finally does discover something worth knowing – a sewer crammed with living, rotting prisoners – he is impotent to change a thing. Gentle, imaginative Ray, hurled into the horror of actual fighting, is the antithesis of the killing machine the army requires him to be, dreaming of invisibility and of the movies he wants to make when it is all over.
Foulds deploys his poetic prose to full effect to evoke the terror, brutality and randomness of battle. The men are invaded by war at every level of their being. When Ray is deafened by a blast that also shatters his mind, the grammatical structures of the language he uses break down, lines fracture into half-sentences and one word paragraphs, punctuation and logical syntax fail, visually enacting the soldier’s blasted perception of reality: “All matter just matter, jerking with life, some of it. Just jumping a little bit, tearing against itself, fraying, frittering, bleeding, lying still, scattered.”
When the Allied forces turn their attention to Sicily, Will and Ray are set on a collision course with two characters we first encounter in the novel’s prologue: Angilù, then a humble Sicilian shepherd, and Cirò Albanese, the local mafioso. Having left Sicily in a fake coffin in 1926 to evade the fascists taking over the island, Cirò returns from the US 17 years later to capitalise on the Allied invasion and apparently assist in the process of “defascistification”, but in reality to reassert his grip over the local population. His swiftly brutal disposal of the man who has married Cirò’s “widow”, Teresa, in his absence leaves us in no doubt as to his true intentions. Cirò seems loosely based on Lucky Luciano, a real life Don brought to Sicily by the Americans to help denounce and oust local fascists, an unholy alliance well depicted in Tim Newark’s The Mafia At War (2007). Here, Cirò is a chilling portrait of conscienceless corruption, slipping eel-like through the dark world he is master of.
Women in this supremely male world are reduced to fantasies of purity, like the movie stars on the covers of Ray’s magazines, or dehumanised opportunities for physical release. Prostitution is ubiquitous. What little agency women have to make money for their families is severely compromised by the way they are viewed by the men who use them. Foulds skilfully conveys how constrained women’s options are in war and in patriarchal societies, and how depersonalised they are in the eyes of his male characters.
Nature alone provides a quiet counterpoint to the man-made carnage. A cat moves along a wall, “its shoulder blades undulating under its loose skin”; a river flows over a “dim bed of round stones, the swaying weeds, its surface braided with currents”. Angilu’s sheep, “nervous, thick-skulled . . . their tatty rumps swaying”, are a telling metaphor for civilians and soldiers, alike caught up in events beyond their control.
With an unfalteringly steady hand, Foulds slowly weaves together the strands of his separate narratives, yet he resists the temptation to tie up the ends too neatly. The final chapters have the pace and tension of a political thriller. However, we are left with a sense not of satisfying closure but of the wanton arbitrariness that governs a man’s fortune and fate. The book’s title is a translation of the Italian expression for good luck, “in bocca al lupo”, to which the correct response is “crepi il lupo”, or “may the wolf die”. As this superb novel makes clear, to evade the wolf takes more than good luck, for the wolf is out there in the woods, and sipping coffee at the kitchen table, and within us.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)