Book review: Wolfsong by TJ Klune

(Photo taken on my annual January break at an eco cabin near Dungog, NSW, Australia; book was read and reviewed there)

Being loved unconditionally and truly belonging are two of the greatest gifts anyone can ever receive.

They bolster the heart, restore the soul and they are utterly alien to Oxnard Matheson, protagonist of TJ Klune’s latest masterpiece, Wolfsong.

Not because he hasn’t been loved at all – he has always had the devoted love of his mother Maggie and the brother-father care of Gordo, the man who runs the car repair shop in Green Creek, Oregon where they all live, and who has been more of a father to Ox, as he’s popularly known, than the young man’s real dad.

Ox’s actual dad is a narcissistic abuser; a man who, apart from the usual drunkenness and physical base, which are horrific enough in themselves, is intent on reducing his son to an existential wasteland.

When he abandons Ox and his mum when his son is twelve, he tells him that he is worth nothing, that he will never achieve anything or be loved by anyone, stinging parting words that Ox, who still loves his dad despite everything, takes to heart.

It doesn’t matter how often he is told he is wonderful, kind, thoughtful and amazing or that he has great potential, Ox looks at his considerable physical size, his slow-to-move way with words and his general life circumstance which sits very much on the crushingly poor end of things, and he tells himself, again and again that his dad was right and he destined to be nothing to anyone and to make little-to-no-mark on the sorry state of the world.

He looked down at me. His eyes were orange, bright and beautiful. They flared briefly before they faded back to his normal blue, and I knew he was in there. I knew it was still the little boy who thought I smelled of pinecones and candy canes. Of epic and awesome. I tried not to think about how many things made sense now, because it threatened to overwhelm me.

So instead, I said, “Hey, Joe.”

And he tipped his head back and sang.

That is until he meets the Bennetts who move in next door on the out-of-the-way lane on which he and his mother live.

They are back in Green Creek after an unexplained absence, and their kindliness, their inclusivity and their confounding willingness to make Ox a part of their mysteriously tight family, especially after he bonds with their traumatised youngest son, Joe, is so wondrously unexpected that it challenges everything Ox has ever been told about himself.

Suddenly, beyond his mum and Gordo, Ox has real, tangible value, not least because he and he alone seems to be able to quieten Joe down when the terrors and nightmares consume him, erupting from his broken soul with some fulsome, scarring presence that Joe is left immobilised, emotionally and physically.

But what truly leaves Ox perplexed is that dad Thomas, mum Elizabeth, Thomas’s brother Mark, who has a troubled relationship with Gordo, and Joe’s older brothers Carter and Kelly, wrap their family’s generously encompassing love around him, and he is suddenly a part of their pack as they call it, invited to weekly dinners on a Sunday, and protected at school from the mindless bullies who are no match for the two older Bennett boys.

The most miraculous thing is his friendship with eleven-year-old Joe, who meets sixteen-year-old Joe and who decides then and there that the gentle, caring giant of a teenage man is his best friend in the world.

TJ Klune (image courtesy Goodreads)

It’s an astonishingly strong and powerful bond that forms the beautifully intense emotional centrepiece of Wolfsong, and which drives much of what happens through the near-600 pages of this wondrously emotive book which celebrates in ways profoundly intense and happily buoyant what it means to be loved without question, protected without ceasing and enveloped by a sense of belonging so expansive that there is, and will be, no end to it.

The great secret of the Bennetts is that they are werewolves, a pack of storied, ancient lineage who are intimately bound to each other in a way that human simply aren’t, and which Ox, strangely for a mere non shape-shifting mortal, seems to be connected with in a way he simply shouldn’t be, or can’t be if werewolf lore is to be believed.

There is a great evil afoot in Wolfsong, not from the Bennetts, it should be stressed, who are the guardians of what is good, honest, and truthfully nurturing, but what really strikes you throughout Klune’s exquisitely well-written novel, which sings of the beauty of love unconditional and belonging without question, is how wondrous it is to discover that you have value after all.

It’s obvious to everyone who knows Ox that he is something special, but he is unable to see it, a lack of self-perception that will make perfect sense to anyone who has ever undergone childhood trauma, and which Klune represents with a truthfulness, empathy, compassion and insight that leaves you gasping with a deep sense of being known and understood.

I am here with you ox because you have always done the same for me you are candy cane and pinecones you are epic and awesome you are the only reason why I was able to get through the years i was gone i cut us off and tried to push you out of my mind but when I was late when it was dark i would think of you of coming home to you of being with you happy being home because ox you’re my home without you i am nothing i am no one you are my love my life my pack my mate so i need you to focus i need you to listen to my heart to my voice to my breaths i am your Alpha and i can’t do this without you so you come back you come back you fucking come back to me ox

i listen

his breaths

his voice and words

his heart

Certainly, Ox, whose incredibly meaningful relationship with Joe, proves to be life changing for both people through good times and bad, slowly begins to understand that perhaps he is something out of the ordinary, a revelation which is slow to fully hit its mark, because of the way he’s been treated in the past, but which when it does, transforms Ox beyond all measure.

Wolfsong reflects, once again, a prevailing theme of being unquestioning loved and belonging in Klune’s richly queer-infused novels which answer the desperate heart of the ostracised and the cast aside, especially those who don’t fit heteronormative mainstream ideas of sexuality and humanity, to be fully and completely accepted and embraced.

This sense of inclusive belonging is a recurrent theme throughout Wolfsong which upholds the inherent worth of those outside of the usual norms, in this case werewolves and the sexually fluid, and holds them up as people and creatures of real worth and innate value.

When you have been reviled all your life for not being “right” or good enough, having a novel as beautifully sensitive, emotionally resonant and poetically written as this one tell you through the story of its healed and restored lead character that you matter and have value beyond words, is a tremendous joy of almost unquantifiable worth.

The story of Ox and Joe, and the wondrous found family/pack that grows around them, is one for the emotional ages, a tale so rapturously, verdantly alive with understanding, truth and care (which is also filled with thrilling terror, grief and loss) that it’s hard not to embrace Wolfsong, as has happened with The House on the Cerulean Sea and The Whispering Door before it, as something truly special and revolutionarily bold that brings you alive, as it transforms Ox who faces immeasurable terrors and horrors on his way to fulfilling what he could never admit to himself – that he has value, that he matters and that he is the very beginning and end of the world (especially to Joe) which is all the better for having him in it.

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