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3.3 out of 5 stars
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3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 3 September 2014
Reading Adam Foulds’s new novel In the Wolf’s Mouth, I was reminded of literary movements like Oulipo, which explored the concept of ‘potential literature’.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that the novel is particularly experimental. It’s the ‘potential’ aspect that stuck in my head. In the world of Oulipo and others, the emphasis was more on the creation of new possibilities, rather than the actual execution of those ideas. In the Wolf’s Mouth is in some ways a potential novel. It sets up a scenario involving multiple characters and storylines, and then leaves those narratives deliberately unconnected, the potential deliberately unfulfilled. It’s a deliberate choice, and there are very clear reasons for it, making it an interesting book to read and think about.

First, a word on those different narratives. We start with two rural Sicilians in pre-war Sicily, and then switch for the bulk of the book to the stories of two young Allied soldiers in World War II. Italian-American infantryman Ray Marfione marches across Italy, watches his friends die, and gets badly lost, both spiritually and geographically, while English intelligence officer Will Walker blunders ineffectually across North Africa and Italy.

These characters, Ray and Will, constantly threaten to become protagonists, but never actually do. They lurch from place to place, constantly at the mercy of unseen forces.

Will tries to take bold action, but is frustrated by incompetent and cowardly superior officers. In north Africa, for example, he wants to hold the French colonial government accountable for imprisoning local people in a filthy underground pit called the ‘fish pond’. But his captain talks evasively of the balance of power, and tells him to write up a report. Later, he makes negotiations with local leaders to have the area join the British Empire, but is told that the British are pulling out.

As for Ray, he spends most of the war watching people get maimed and blown up. He threatens to have a deep friendship with a fellow soldier, but they are separated. He hides out in the house of a local Italian prince, and almost has an affair with the prince’s daughter.

The only people who are real protagonists are those rural Sicilians we met right at the beginning – Angilu and Ciro, a shepherd and a Mafioso. Their lives are intertwined, even though one of them goes to America and back, and it’s these two who meet again at the end of the book, with dramatic consequences.

The British and the Americans, on the other hand, are just passing through. Ray and Will both meet the prince for whom Angilu now works, and Will threatens to have Ciro arrested, but they have little real impact on the world of the people whose country they’ve invaded. This is a story that belongs to the local people, not the invaders, just as the land belonged to them before, and will continue to belong to them long after the armies and tanks have departed.

By telling us so much of Ray and Will’s story, and then depriving us of the central role I came to expect of them, Foulds at first left me a little disappointed at the ending, but then when I thought about it some more, I saw what he had done and why he had done it.

It’s a clever strategy, although not without risk: the Daily Mail reviewer concluded that the book lacked narrative drive, and thought that “another draft might have made it a whole lot better.”

I can see why he thought that, but I think Foulds probably went through many drafts, and shaped his story very carefully and deliberately to portray war in the way he saw it. The end result was a book that gave me a fresh perspective on a very old conflict, which I think is something of an achievement.
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on 23 April 2014
I don't wish to repeat the critical comments already posted but simply to record my agreement with their disappointment in this shallow novel. I too bought it on the back of a host of favourable reviews and am baffled that so many supposedly practiced judges can have been so misguided.
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on 31 March 2014
Hosannas in the TLS and the Guardian reviews prompted me to order this book and have it sent all the way to America. Its premise (the Mafia returns to Sicily with Patton's and Montgomery's armies) sounded intriguing enough. My hopes were disappointed. Having read it, I am frankly baffled that any reviewer could praise this desperately poorly written novel. The blood and guts of the battle scenes has been praised as "poetic"; but it's forced and unconvincing, to say the least. I willed myself ("flogged" might be the better word) to finish the book, hoping there might be something to redeem it. There wasn't. Truly, it is one of the most ineptly written books I have ever read. Whatever merit Foulds may have as a writer, his editor should not have let him get the bit in his mouth and run off with ludicrously extravagant and clumsy metaphors and sometimes freakish diction that would make you laugh, were there not so many instances of them to, in the end, annoy you. The characterization is utterly arbitrary, cartoonish really and nothing more. Think before you lay out £17 and give this one a wide berth. Not only is it a waste of money, it is also a waste of cellulose. Worse of all, it is a waste of your valuable time -- a far, far worse sin. But to give it its curate's egg due: Suzanne Dean's cover design is striking -- the best thing about the book, in fact.
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on 20 March 2014
Very poorly researched and realised. Lacks authenticity and any understanding of the formation of modern Italy,thats politically, economically and socially. I wonder how someone who shows little grasp of the historical facts can ever create believable characters, that reflect or represent in any complexity a period of history and the position Italians found themselves in. Terrible and misleading.
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on 15 October 2014
Set mostly in the battlegrounds of North Africa and Italy in the Second World War, this is a poetic and beautifully observed novel. The two main characters who alternate the narrative are William Walker, a rather pompous junior recruit in British field intelligence, and Ray Marfione, US infantry of Italian ethnic background. Both are deployed to North Africa, where Ray endures some traumatic fighting, while Will’s opinion of his limited abilities is inflated. They then are moved to Sicily to engage the retreating Axis forces – Ray to fight, while Will is given the task of assisting in law enforcement and filling in the vacuum created by the departure of the Fascist administration. But he comes up against the local Sicilian vendettas and long-running disputes that continue, and in some cases are made worse, by the military conflict.
The descriptions of the fighting are excellent and seem authentic to a non-combatant. Likewise, the understanding of motivations and the analysis of character and behaviour have a genuine and intelligent essence that fully engages the reader in the experiences of the main players in this tale. This is a story about war and its pervasive influence examines the human condition under such times of terrible stress, as well as periods of boredom and anomie.
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on 30 March 2014
I've given this novel four stars but maybe three and a half would be a more accurate score. The writing is so patchy - sometimes it soars and achieves a startling brilliance while at other times it is overwritten and clumsy. There are some stock characters here - the good peasant, the mafioso boss, the intriguing Princess, the stoical village women - and for me they never seemed authentic and therefore never became engaging. The descriptions of warfare rang true with a horrible vividness.
So - worth reading but didn't live up to rave reviews. By the way, do writers and journos operate some sort of mutual back-scratching over reviews? It seems to me that they do.
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on 4 July 2016
This novel starts in Sicily in 1926 and ends there following the Allied invasion in WW@ and concerns four characters – Italian, American and English – whose lives – and deaths - interlink.

Parts of its reminded me of D. H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers) and other parts of American writers like Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead), Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity) in which young men face their first experience of death. These parts, most of which are set in North Africa, are the best.

At other times, it reminded me of The Godfather by Mario Puzo and The Leopard by Giussepi Tomasi di Lampedusa. However, the narrative stalls in these latter scenes in Sicily when the Allies inadvertently end up helping the Mafia to re-establish itself by posing as anti-fascists. The book becomes baffling and confusing and it is difficult to know what is going on.

The writer should have explained more and filled out some of the characters, particularly the English officer, who just virtually disappears, and the Sicilian princess. Despite this criticism, it is not a bad read.

SPOILER ALERT. SKIP THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE IF YOU INTEND READING THIS BOOK. I do not see how the killings at the end make any sense. Why would a boy kill someone who has just shot to death the man who had, in turn, killed his father a few days earlier? Could he even achieve a feat like this with a knife against an armed man? Is this meant to illustrate some Sicilian code of honor?
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on 30 November 2014
Could not warm to any of the characters, and could not really visualise them. As I am interested in Sicily I was looking forward to this book but was disappointed in that there was so much negativity attached to the place and people. I felt that we could have done without the American and English characters altogether and just concentrated on Sicily and its problems in WW2. Or perhaps I `am missing something.
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Focuses on two very different soldiers: Ray, an innocent Italian American infantryman and the very different Will, an ambitious officer, speaks Arabic and overestimates his importance in war. North Africa, 1942
Heavy battle scenes especially where Ray involved. I found them repetitive and little boring but that may be that I’ve read too many. Powerful sense of futility of war and blunders costing too many lives. Some very sensitive scenes of camaraderie. Will’s escapades more interesting.
The novel starts in Sicily in 1926 with Angilu, a young shepherd and Ciro Albanese, a mafioso, bound for America, and who returns to Sicily at the time of the Allied landings. Here the mafia still abound and revenge and punishment are the norm. And brutal. No-one sees anything. Redeeming part of this Sicilian travail is Ray’s adventure. As it says at the end ‘we were really lost’. In more than one sense
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on 15 April 2014
Well, I really don't know what was going on with a couple of the previous reviewers!

This is a novel - and often a powerful one, not a work of precise history, although it deals with events well within the lifetime of many of us. More importantly, it evokes with chilling accuracy much of the atmosphere as the Allies, with their eyes firmly on the greater prizes of Italian capitulation and eventual overall victory, compromised again and again through haste, ignorance and credulity.

Plenty of echoes of the warped morality of The Godfather and also of the fading grandeur of The Leopard, that very fine film.

Woven through all this is - for those fortunate enough to have spent time on the island - the strange, dark and beautiful character of Sicily itself. For me this is an unhesitating full four stars.
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