The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

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Reviewed by Victoria

Sarah Hall’s reputation preceeded her into this, my first excursion into her writing (though it’s her fifth novel). Usually this is not a good thing; I have a working theory that high expectations are the ruination of any decent reading experience. Unless, it turns out, the author is brilliant, and then, as in this case, my breath is taken away. Understated but vivid, raw and real yet so very shapely, this is as beguiling, as knowing and as sure-footed as the wolves that bring the story into being.

Rachel Caine has spent a good decade avoiding her family and her native land, working on a reservation in Idaho where she monitors a pack of wolves. The job is full of routine, humans influenced maybe by the wolves they watch fanatically into mirroring the smooth, graceful state of unthinking flow that animals inhabit. Rachel fits seamlessly into her working environment, her quiet intelligence, her focus, her self-sufficiency all finding a perfect match here. But she has a wild side, a taste for one night stands that eventually trips her up when she becomes pregnant by a co-worker.

Unable to deal with the implications, and aware of the restrictions in Idaho on abortions, Rachel heads home to take up a job she has recently refused. The eccentric 11th Earl of Annerdale is in the process of implementing a controversial scheme: the reintroduction of the wolf to the Lake District centuries after their extinction in the British Isles. Owning vast tracts of land, the Earl has created a huge barrier intended to keep the wolves in and the curious out. It’s a way of reducing the fears of an ignorant public, too, who are already mounting protests at the threat they perceive to their children’s safety. Before there are even any wolves in the territory, the erection of a barrier arouses dissention, anger, fear, and prejudice, the whole symbolic conflict around what’s inside and what’s outside sparked into fierce and vibrant life. When Rachel arrives to take up her position as head of the project, the vast barrier is the first thing she sees, her first responsibility.

In the rest of her life, however, other ancient barriers are unexpectedly coming down. Her difficult mother having recently died, she starts to grow closer again to her estranged brother and his wife. The fact that they are trying unsuccessfully to have a baby seems initially awkward, when she has become pregnant so carelessly, but in the end it becomes a way of forging a much more sophisticated and grown-up relationship with her brother. For Rachel finds she cannot get rid of her unwanted pregnancy, and that motherhood, when it comes, will open up new parts of her identity, show her new and unexpected dimensions to her heart. She also embarks for the first time on a more stable relationship with the local vet. None of this comes about by preordained choice or considered decision; it’s more that Rachel accepts nature as a profoundly organic condition. Her life grows and opens like a blossoming plant, in ways that are stealthy and almost imperceptible.

The world around her, however, is as fraught with chaos and manipulation as ever. The story is set in the run up to the Scottish vote on devolution (and was finished before the actual referendum in the UK), and her boss, Thomas Pennington, is working away in back rooms on his own political agenda. The pair of wolves arrive from Hungary and Rachel assembles her team around her, which includes the Earl’s daughter, Sylvia. Rachel fears that she will be a nepotistic implant, a burden on the project, but instead her youthful enthusiasm and hard work are a boon to the team. And yet still Rachel cannot quite shake the feeling that something else is going on, that some disruption will come and disturb the peaceful days of wolf monitoring that engage them all.

This is such a brilliant novel, but it is not an explosive one. Instead, its sinuous form is more concerned with adaptation, with the natural processes of putting down roots, taking opportunities, of growth and development that happen almost entirely of their own accord. The wolves who are the central premise for the novel and yet inhabit mostly its margins, are shown as superhuman in their ability to use their intuitive natural powers. When they are still in quarantine and having their food delivered by human hand:

It is impossible to decoy or approach in secret. They are too clever, hardwired; they know. Sometimes it is difficult not to believe they have additional senses, abilities not biomechanical – a kind of clairvoyance.

Although the humans have the technology to monitor the wolves, it’s the humans who need to learn from them.

The human dimension of the novel is all about the conflict between the borders we create, and what they mean, and the materiality of life in its instincts and violence. Perhaps by the end, motherhood comes to stand as the point of convergence of all these different forces at work. Seconds after the delivery of her baby, Rachel thinks to herself ‘There is no wound. The only wound is life, recklessly creating it, knowing that it will never be safe, it will never last; it will only ever be real.’ And maybe it’s this instinct of the narrative to follow the tracks of the real as closely as possible that makes the novel so gripping and so haunting. Extraordinary writing and clever storytelling make this undoubtedly a novel that will appear on my best of the year list.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border (Faber: London, 2015) 978-0571258123, 448 pp., hardback.

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