In his masterful novel In the Wolf’s Mouth, set in the waning days of World War II, the British novelist and poet Adam Foulds shuns the tropes of historical fiction to pare his story to its essence. You will not learn the military details of the battles fought in North Africa or Sicily. There are no cameo walk-ons by famous military leaders. Instead, through his plain, precise language, Foulds creates a powerful sense of intimacy with his characters as they experience the physical and psychological devastation of war.
The prologue begins in 1926 at the advent of Fascism in Italy with Angilú, a Sicilian shepherd, tending a prince’s flock in the hills over the village of Sant’ Attilio. When bandits disturb his idyll and steal the sheep, Angilú uses a gun to defend himself. “Then Angilú was alone with the man he’d shot and had to listen to him dying. Angilú was cursed, forgotten, all his luck gone. His saint was painted tin,” Foulds writes. The point of view shifts to Ciró Albanese, who likely tipped off the bandits to Angilú’s whereabouts. After the appointment of a Fascist governor, Ciró, a Mafioso, flees his homeland by faking his own death.
Leaping forward to 1942, we meet Will, an English soldier who is spending his last day with his family in the countryside before being shipped off to his posting. Throughout the book, Foulds evokes the adage “character is destiny” as demonstrated in this pithy description of Will:
There was a look for the officer class and Will didn’t have it. Five feet nine inches tall, he had dark hair and dark eyes, a handsomely grooved round head and a low centre of gravity. This was unfair. In his soul he was tall, a traveller, a keen, wind-honed figure.
With his poet’s skill, Foulds distills each sentence to maximize its potency as in this description of Will considering his mother’s response to his impending departure:
She would be here all the while imagining him blown to bits. This thought demanded that he imagine his own death also and that was deeply pointless and unhelpful. Typical: her determination never to make a scene often resulted in strange, cramped, unresolved scenes like this. Useless woman. A boy going away to war without a goodbye from his mother.
Next we are in a warship’s bunk heading to battle with Ray, an Italian-American soldier, who escapes the boredom and terror of waiting by imagining ideas for movies.
With deft and admirable restraint and directness, Foulds describes how ill-suited the childlike Ray is for life as a soldier:
Usually Ray kept himself to himself, hiding in the dark, preferring invisibility. He liked to be quiet and think. The army, then, was not a natural place for him. He could be seen all the time. Powerful, watching people shouted at him, making him run and crawl and stand thrusting himself upwards at attention and repeat things after them. Just shouting, ‘Yes, sir!’ was difficult for Ray.
Through Ray, we experience the shock, confusion and irrationality of war from the moment he lands on a beach in North Africa, through terrible battles and skirmishes, in which his fellow soldiers and friends are mutilated and killed. Hoping for a reprieve, Ray joins the peacekeeping forces heading to Sicily after the Nazi retreat, only to watch a companion get blown up by a landmine, which pushes Ray into a complete breakdown.
Meanwhile, chapters about other characters appear in a satisfyingly unpredictable pattern. We follow Will in his security regiment through assignments in North Africa and eventually into Sicily. We travel to the United States, where Ciró, who has successfully adapted his Mafioso methods, plots his revenge, joins the army and returns to Sant’Attilio, where the shepherd Angilú is now a trusted manager working for the prince and living in Ciró’s old house.
We also spend time with Luisa, the prince’s daughter, a bored and headstrong young woman, who longs for a change from her static life riding horses around the estate as she and her father await the arrival of the invading Allied forces:
At dinner that night the fighting was very close. They sat down at the walnut table to the accompaniment of crackling guns. Luisa’s father’s fear was so great that he could not show any sign of it at all. If he once flinched or moaned, he would have crumpled to the floor and crawled away to the cellarage. As it was, he walked in like someone balancing a book on his head and sat with his eyes very wide and unseeing. Luisa found his face very funny.
Through his vivid, understated descriptions of the people, the landscapes and the chaos of war, Foulds patiently interweaves his characters’ stories, slowly building the tension as all the principals converge in Sant’ Attilio. What began as a ruminative, evocative account of war becomes a suspenseful thriller as we both want to know and dread the inexorable outcome of this conflagration of violence.
In the end, Foulds brilliantly delivers a story worthy of his epigraph from Wallace Stevens: There may be a time of innocence. There is never a place.