Slim but full-blooded ... The profundity of Appanah’s tale, sensitively translated by Geoffrey Strachan, emerges from a puckish mix of the fairy tale...and the meta ... Free indirect discourse, in which seemingly omniscient narration slips slyly into a character’s limited perspective, colludes with self-assured direct address — “we must not forget…” — to insist that characters’ insights, like so many of our own, shouldn’t be relied on. All is shot through with a mournful lyricism ... As the family’s situation refuses to resolve easily, the book’s sincerity glows anew.
Wolf is a fascinating character, as is Phoenix to a lesser extent, but Appanah doesn’t spend quite enough time with either—the sections on Wolf’s grandfather and doctor don’t go anywhere, or at least any place that opens up the novel. Her writing and Strachan’s translation are fine, although she’s too given to tangents that turn out to be blind alleys. It’s a valiant attempt that just misses its mark.