Ultimately, it’s this attentiveness that makes Throw Me to the Wolves such an absorbing novel. McGuinness may have eschewed most of the conventional thrills of procedural fiction, but what he withholds in suspense and action he amply repays in the form of language: on virtually every page, there are perfectly judged descriptions that reveal something about the world. “Nothing ages you,” we learn, “more perfectly than what your idea of the future will look like.” Reflecting on the changing connotations of “grooming”, Ander describes it as a “word that used to mean something small and innocent, with its old-school menswear-shop ritualism”.
In its elegiac exploration of memory and the legacy of childhood trauma, though, Throw Me to the Wolves is intensely powerful, and a beautifully measured evocation of the way that far from being dead the past is, as Faulkner said, not even past. “If you’re measuring it in … what? Inside-time? Heart-and-blood time? Lining-of-our-lives time?... in that case it’s yesterday. It’s always yesterday there, in the lining of our lives.”
McGuinness plays all this out beautifully, allowing each aspect of the story to resonate meaningfully with the others. The trial by media of Michael Wolphram becomes the centre of gravity which draws together the culture of bullying and submission in the public school system and the sense in which our present time can be partly defined as a hangover after the rampant abuse and casual child sexualisation of previous decades...Having the contemplative Ander as his narrator gives McGuinness the opportunity to let the story unspool at its own pace while he explores all its facets in clean prose polished to the point of translucence.
McGuinness, who lectures in French at Oxford University as well being a poet and novelist, spins his tale with some beautiful, unashamedly intellectual prose. It’s a pity that the female characters are mostly one-dimensional archetypes (and that Zalie remains a faceless cipher). However, in all other respects this is literary fiction as it should be: in stylish, surprising, lyrical sentences we are forced to confront the hidden power structures, public and private, that control our everyday lives. It’s reminiscent of Edward St Aubyn, not only in its pillorying of the elite, but the pleasure McGuinness takes in having his characters say clever things. It’s also a proper page-turner.