Sarah Hall; author of The Electric Michelangelo and Haweswater and a couple of other novels which I haven’t read, uses the tantalising prospect of the re-introduction of wolves to the British countryside as the premise for her most recent offering. Wolves are strange, beautiful almost mythical creatures, their inclusion in the fairy-tales of our childhood mean that the mere mention of them can raise the hairs on the back of our necks in delicious anticipation of a chilling tale.
“it’s not often she dreams about them. During the day they are elusive, keeping to the tall grass of the Reservation, disappearing from the den site. They are fleet or lazy moving through their own tawny colourscape and sleeping under logs – missable either way. Their vanishing acts have been perfected. At night they come back.”
As soon as I heard of The Wolf Border I knew I wanted to read it – I love novels rooted in the British countryside as this one is –and I wasn’t disappointed, it’s an excellent novel of animal conservation, and complex human relationships.
The borders of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border are the borders of life for all human animals, life, death, parenthood, addiction, political change and the daily cooperation between man and the natural world. These themes are huge, and here are woven together with seamless brilliance. Set against the backdrop of the Scottish referendum, The Wolf Border is also a fantastic page turner – I really couldn’t put it down.
“She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border.”
Rachel Caine, a British zoologist has been working in Idaho for six years on a wolf recovery project. Her life is often solitary – though peppered with occasional trips to local bars and brief liaisons – she spends days at a time tracking wolves and recording the data received from electronic implants. Rachel enjoys her life, relishing in the important work she is involved in.
When the wealthy, eccentric Thomas Pennington; Earl of Annerdale invites her back to England to discuss his scheme for the re-introduction of the Grey Wolf into Northern England, Rachel is intrigued. As the Earl’s Cumbrian estate is close to where Rachel’s mother, the frequently, difficult Binny, lives in a nursing home, Rachel uses the trip as a prompt to pay an overdue visit to her sick mother. The Earl’s wolf enclosure takes in vast swathes of Cumbrian landscape, but it is essentially an enclosure and the wolves will still be captive, although able to live as wild wolves, for Rachel this is a step back from the work she has been doing in Idaho. Rachel returns to her colleagues in Idaho having done her daughterly duty, listened to the Earl and turned his offer down.
Rachel’s relationship with her mother and younger brother is difficult, and when she receives the news of her mother’s death, she does not immediately return to England, but embarks on an unwise drunken, one night stand with a friend – an evening resulting in pregnancy, leads Rachel to re-assess her options. Accepting the Earl’s previous offer to manage the scheme, Rachel travels again to the landscape of her childhood, moving into a secluded cottage on the estate.
A pair of Grey Wolves from Romania will be the start of the Earl’s controversial scheme, a scheme already attracting a lot of protestors. Before the wolves arrive, however, Rachel must meet the people she will be working with, and shake the hand of tame politicians at an evening reception at the hall. The Earl is a widower, his wife killed in an air accident, he appears estranged from his adult son, but his teenage daughter, the apple of his eye is another keen supporter of the scheme, and wanting something to do before she goes off to university she asks Rachel if she can help out with her father’s scheme. Also working with Rachel is Huib, a South African drifter, who understands the wolves as keenly as Rachel herself, he camps out on the estate and is a welcome, calm friend to Rachel. Rachel senses that the Earl is a man easily bored, the Wolf enclosure is his latest obsession, and Rachel knows that his real object would be to eventually completely re-wild the wolves. Despite the niggles in the back of her mind, and an unplanned pregnancy to deal with she sets about bringing back the Grey Wolf to England after an absence of hundreds of years.
“High summer. The district bakes in a rare spell of unbroken heat, week after week of open blue sky, elegantly cut through by swallows and martins. The upland grass parches, and in the valleys and the corners of fields, the smell of hay beginning, and elative smell – reassuring to the agricultural memory, perhaps. Heat shimmers on the roads as the horizons soften, and tar melts. The wolves become nocturnal, moving about the enclosure at night, keeping to the shade in the day.”
Rachel is infectiously driven, she is determined and brave, and a truly brilliant character. From her envy inducing Cumbrian cottage (maybe just me?) she manages her unexpected pregnancy, reaches out to her damaged, troubled brother and manages a controversial, conservation project.
My one very slight problem with the novel (not a big criticism at all) is that the novel focuses heavily on Rachel’s relationships with her brother, his problems, her pregnancy and burgeoning motherhood, and less, I felt, on the wolves, than I had expected. I did really, really enjoy the novel as a whole, it’s very well written, compelling and works incredibly well, but I would have liked more of the natural world, more of the wolves and a little less of the whole family dysfunction thing that was going on in both Rachel and the Earl’s families.