Now and then you come across a writer with a talent that is so unique, and so idiosyncranatic that they can ignore most of the "rules" that apply to a good work of fiction and still turn out a work that is worth reading. Sister Wolf is that kind of book, and Ann Arensberg is that kind of author. It's a short novel, full of contradictions and shifts of mood and pace, but still manages to have a coherent narrative, and a consistent compelling voice.
It's the story of Merit Deym, an heiress of Hungarian aristocracy who lives on a thousand miles of Berkshire Hills wilderness. Bright and attractive, but uncomfortable around most people Merit feels most at ease with the wild animals, bears and wolves included, that she allows to live on her unofficial preserve. She has one real friend, Lola Brevard, a breezy socialite who juggles her open social calendar with a secret life as a lesbian with a taste for coltish tomboys. There is also one man in her life, Gabriel Frankman, hot-tempered as a youth who has since wrapped himself in a blanket of asceticism and become a teacher of blind children at an exclusive academy not far from the Deym estate. It would not be too far off of the mark to say that the rest of the story is just watching these three characters interact for a month or so, until a series of misunderstandings escalate into tragedy. It would also be a bit simplistic.
What Ms. Arensberg does that is so original that I alluded to in the first paragraph is that the majority of the narrative in this book could be called back-story. She shows and tells us these, and several other well-drawn minor characters, stories until the present day, and then with about twenty percent of the book left, the rest of the tale unfolds. Admittedly the stuff that does happen is amongst the most sensational in a novel filled with byzantine twists and strange, complex individuals. The reason that this works in this case is that Ms. Arensberg is a writer that knows how to make prose sing, so that while basically filling us in on the past lives of these people it is never less than fascinating.
The only thing that keeps me from labeling this a five-star book is that most of the characters in this book are particularly difficult to like or empathize with, and while that is not a prerequisite, it certainly does help the medicine go down a bit smoother. The only one I felt and degree of sympathy with, until near the end, was Lola, who was a ray of sunshine amidst a group of gloomy Guses caught up in the middle of a Gothic nightmare. Yet for the majority of this book I was held in thrall, and that says quite a bit for the talent of Ms. Arensberg, and quite a bit for this special novel.