The Wolf Border is about Rachel Caine, a zoologist who works at a conservation project in Idaho that reintroduces wolves to the wild. When the novel begins, she returns to her native Cumbria—where the book’s author, Sarah Hall, is also from, and where she has set much of her work—to visit her ailing mother and to meet Thomas, Earl of Annerdale, “a man who owns a fifth of her home county.” The Earl has concocted a scheme to reintroduce wolves to England, or, at least, to a vast enclosure on his estate which abuts on a national park.
Rachel plans only to indulge the Earl: she’s put off by his ability to buy and bulldoze his way into getting whatever he wants, made wary by something about him, he seems half-messianic, half-clueless. She turns him down. But then things happen: her mother dies and she gets pregnant after a messy one-night stand with a colleague. Even though she has no plans to keep the baby, and doesn’t even tell the father she’s pregnant, she finds herself drawn home. It gives her a reason to run away from a situation she doesn’t want to deal with.
The rest of the novel concerns the events of Rachel’s year and a half back home. She oversees the arrival of a breeding pair from a wolf rescue in Romania, decides to have the child, repairs her relationship with her half-brother, Lawrence, gets involved with the vet who is hired to work on the wolf project, and becomes, with the help of a community that forms around her, a parent to her infant son, Charlie.
Put that way, the book seems surprisingly optimistic. Things work out. Problems are solved. I say “surprisingly” because as I was reading the novel I could not shake a feeling of dread. Everything in the book feels precarious. I was sure something terrible was going to happen. That’s not just my pessimistic nature, either. The novel works hard to keep us unsettled.
Take, for example, the protests directed at the wolf reintegration project. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is excited about the prospect of returning wolves to the UK for the first time in 500 years. Many are unassuaged by sermons about what an apex predator can do for the health of an ecosystem. Farmers fear the loss of livestock, parents fear for their children. This despite the fact the wolves are enclosed in what is in effect a giant pen, with a costly and forbidding barrier system. Protestors picket outside the walls; the team receives threatening emails. Someone even damages the fence.
These worries pretty much come to naught. In general, when things go awry in this novel they turn out not to be so bad, even maybe to have been for the best. Alongside Rachel’s story, and the story of the wolves (whose fate we care about but who fittingly remain opaque to us) is another story, which seems not to matter much at first but eventually becomes important. This concerns the referendum on Scottish independence; in the novel’s alternate version of 2014, the Scots vote yes.
People in Cumbria of course pay attention to what their neighbours to the north are doing, and the Earl, as a peer of the realm and a close associate of the current PM, is closely involved in the campaigning before and negotiating afterwards. But this all happens off-stage, with only occasional references to the success the Scots are making of their newfound independence, which takes a socialist direction: “Across the border, great swathes of foreign-owned land is being recovered, taxes levied on the distilleries, the salmon farms.” When a stretch of bitterly cold and snowy weather brings life in England to a halt, the Scots manage just fine: “The new transport minister says Scotland is equipped and faring well. The ploughs are out; the roads are gritted. Glasgow airport is open for business, flights to Heathrow are being redirected there.”
It shouldn’t surprise us then—though this is something of a spoiler, so if that sort of thing bothers you, feel free to skip down the page a bit—that Scotland is where the characters end up. For the wolves do escape—not by digging under or leaping over the barrier, but by simply walking out the front door: someone leaves the gate open (we never know for sure who’s done it, but it’s pretty clear it’s Thomas himself, the Earl having had a more ambitious, even Machiavellian plan than he had ever disclosed). The last part of the novel is an extended chase scene, as Rachel and her colleagues, together with the local constabulary, race across the fells trying to capture the wolves before anyone can harm them.
That the wolves end up in the remote highlands of Scotland, where they may be able to genuinely roam free, cements the novel’s conclusions about independence and freedom, which is that these states are both desirable and possible, though of course risky and precarious. But what Rachel must come to learn is what the animals she studies have always known: that freedom can’t be a synonym for isolation, and that to be independent you must learn to work with others, the rest of the pack as it were. (The original pair has a litter after their first winter in the preserve, so it is a family that escapes into the wilds of Scotland.)
This message resonates even more strongly in post-Brexit England, of course, but ultimately politics isn’t the novel’s main interest. It’s not uninterested in politics, and one way to read the book is as an allegory for devolution, but I don’t think it would be the most interesting way. Hall keeps the allegory light—though tellingly the novel’s final word is fàilte, Gaelic for welcome—and instead spends her energy thinking about the interplay of wildness and domestication.
An epigraph tells us that in Finnish “wolf border” refers to “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.” Rachel later calls the wolf border a place “where the streetlights end and the wilderness begins.” Of course the idea of wilderness is itself a fantasy, a cultural construct. And Rachel is clear-sighted about the artificiality of her work: the preserve at Annerdale is, in some sense, only a glorified zoo (though after an initial period, the animals are not fed and must fend for themselves). Unless other wolves are brought in, the initial litter must be sterilized. “Rewilding” doesn’t mean “making things return to nature.”
For after all, Rachel is a manager, not so different from the Earl’s gamekeeper. Moreover, over the course of the book she herself becomes managed, entangled with others, needing and wanting them. Children have a way of doing that. It’s possible, then, to read the novel to be advocating for Rachel’s domestication, as if positing an inverse relationship between her and her animal charges: the more wild the wolves become, the more tamed she is. The woman who at the beginning of the book discreetly and assertively organizes no-strings-attached sexual relationships is a different, more settled person by the end.
Yet I’m not fully convinced by this reading. It’s not as though Rachel gives up her job or ties herself to a man. The novel is about bonds rather than domestication. Rachel’s “family” is idiosyncratic and non-nuclear: there’s her half-brother, but also her boyfriend, if that’s what Alexander is, and his daughter, as well as a co-worker and a volunteer from the project. It’s a rag-tag but kind and loyal group, and she needs their help. They form her community. And what the novel really seems to be most interested in—the thing that has always driven Hall’s writing—is the relationship of community to landscape.
Hall’s prose isn’t flashy: she likes sentence fragments and comma splices and straightforward, declarative sentences that read almost too easily, offering little resistance to our readerly teeth. (Hall most reminds me of Tessa Hadley and Rachel Seiffert, two other terrific contemporary British writers whose appeal lies elsewhere than at sentence-level.) Only in her descriptions of landscape does the prose stir a little. This tendency doesn’t just reflect Rachel’s preferences (environment over psychology, exterior over interior states); it also speaks to the novel’s deepest convictions. There are many examples of lyricism of this sort. Consider this description of the arrival of spring:
All week, rain. Big splashing drops on every surface like a child’s illustration of rain. Blue vanishing light and winds from nowhere, bringing slant, destructive showers, or fine drizzle. At night there is rain that exists only as sound on the cottage roof, leaving doused grass in the morning and pools in the rutted lane. The streams and rivers on the estate swell. Spawn clings to submerged rocks and reeds as the current tugs. The lake accepts the extra volume indifferently. And then, when it seems the rain will never end, there’s an explosion of sunshine, the startling heat of it through the cool spring air. Within days a green wildness takes over Annerdale. Dandelions come up, early meadow flowers; the moorland ripens, sphagnum, cotton grass, the white filament heads turning in the breeze. Rachel settles in. The fire in the cottage draws well, the place is cozy.
Or a later one from mid-summer:
Later in the week, Rachel swims in the river with Huib [her co-worker] and Sylvia [the Earl’s daughter, who is volunteering for the project on her gap year]. The heat has become massive, almost solid, the fan in the office stirring turgid air, and there seems no better way to cool down. … The pool is not cold, but cool, exquisite. The valley’s rocks over which the water has travelled have been warmed, patches of the river are warm, too. The slate bottom electrifies the water, renders it exotically blue, like something from a rainforest or a lagoon. Further up are waterfalls, in deep, shadowed gulleys, the miasma of their spray jeweled by sunlight. Sylvia and her brother Leo bathed here as children, she tells them. Huib, too, has discovered the spot, a short hike from the stone bridge near the wolfery, and has been using it regularly. Still, the place has a feeling of gorgeous secrecy.
I don’t find these descriptions extraordinary—Hall is no D. H. Lawrence—but I do think they’re beautiful. Nothing in the syntax or even the diction (save maybe that description of showers as “slant, destructive”) particularly stands out. Yet these passages vividly convey that sense of place, and what it means to live in close relationship to it. For both paragraphs also incorporate human interaction and situatedness, whether through literal homes or the more figurative dwelling place of memory, in their descriptions of the natural world.
Unlike many contemporary literary novels, The Wolf Border doesn’t make a fetish of trauma or apocalypse. Which doesn’t make it naïve or sanguine. Indeed, if this novel in which things work out has a dream, it would be the hope that people could live in some kind of non-exploitative and generative relationship with a landscape that is nonetheless not quite antithetical or hostile but always indifferent and potentially dangerous to them. However fanciful Hall’s glimpses of a tolerant, communal-thinking Scotland might be, she’s never simplistic about nature. She isn’t asking us to rediscover some communion with nature that we never had in the first place.
A passage from a scene in which Rachel, heavily pregnant, is let into the enclosure to check in on the wolves seems to get at these complications. As the van carrying her co-workers drives away she looks for somewhere to pee:
The sound of the van dies away, All is quiet. The ground underfoot is plump and springy, upholstered with moss—rising up, the musty smell of wet bark and fungus. There are frilled orange brackets growing around the trunks, berries, dusty blue and blood red. She squats and relieves herself, the weight of the baby making it awkward to hold her position—she leans against a tree. The branches rustle behind her, the lipping wind or birds flitting between trunks, something stepping back under cover. There’s no one there, but she suddenly feels self-conscious, watched. She stands and looks into the trees, their dark old republic. The perfect environment for ambushing lynx, or bear.
It’s unclear whether “ambushing” in that last sentence is an adjective or a verb. And if the latter, who is supposed to be doing the ambushing? Are the lynxes or bears themselves ambushing something—like maybe Rachel herself, or, more accurately, like human beings, since there aren’t any of those predators in England any more and what she is seeing is only a landscape that could perhaps one day support them again? Or are the lynxes and bears being ambushed by something else? Perhaps the presence that unnerves Rachel here—which might be the wolves themselves (they are more often seen indirectly, through their traces, rather than directly) or perhaps something less sentient but no less palpable, something that here goes by the resonant name of the dark old republic of trees. Could a republic of trees ever include the human? By posing questions like these, Hall’s entertaining novel also gives us a lot to think about.
The first book of Hall’s I read was her third, The Carhullan Army (2007). (It was disastrously re-titled Daughters of the North for its US edition, a wishy washy choice so out of step with the book’s subject matter that I can’t bring myself to use it.) Here Hall brilliantly explores what life could be like after vast societal upheavals caused by extreme climate change. Specifically, she imagines a utopian community of women who live freely in the remote reaches of the Lake District. But this freedom is also highly regulated, indeed it is as structured around violence as the impoverished, wan totalitarianism of what is left of ordinary society. I was riveted by the book when I first read it—I still think of it regularly: in particular its description of how unable those who had grown up amidst capitalist plenty were to adapt to a new and much reduced way of live seems spot on—and later taught it in two separate courses. Students liked it a lot too. In the end, though, I found the book became a little less exciting the more I taught it, a bit more schematic than I’d have liked, and I dropped it from my rotation. But it’s definitely worth reading.
Hall’s next book, a kind of novel in linked stories called How to Paint a Dead Man (2009), was unsatisfying. Then Hall released a collection of stories called The Beautiful Indifference (2011), which I liked quite a bit. Among other things, they reminded me that Hall writes about sex really well. (There’s a scene in The Wolf Border that’s arousing without being the least bit exploitative—not easy to do.) The new novel is Hall’s most accomplished—at least of the ones I’ve read. (I mean to get to her first one, Haweswater, I think it’s a historical novel set in the 1930s in Cumbria; the second, Electric Michaelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker, I believe, but it’s about a tattoo artist: not immediately appealing to me.) I sensed a new maturity in The Wolf Border and hope that her best work is still ahead of her. Sarah Hall is a significant contemporary English writer, maybe not one for the ages, but not all writers are. As you can see, The Wolf Border gave me plenty to think about, though I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. If you’ve read it, I’d really like to know what you think.
I wrote about this last year – I was fascinated that a writer had so quickly used the referendum in her writing, and counter-factually at that (something a Scottish writer would probably not have got away with). I focussed on the number of choices in the novel balanced between hope and fear – in Hall’s novel hope wins out, but not in reality.
Thanks, Grant–just read your very interesting review. I couldn’t get a firm sense from your post about your take on her championing of hope over fear. Do you think it’s naive? Laudable? I’m definitely taken with Naomi’s idea in the comments that the counterfactual offers another border in this novel–maybe one of genre: there’s almost an sf aspect to the text in this regard.
Great observation about the Godwin reference. No matter if intended: suggestive nonetheless!
I don’t think it’s naive. I take the wolves to represent both looking back and forward. They are no doubt linked to an almost genetic terror in Europe which also comes to represent fear of change. Ironically the Brexit vote was about fear of change and the terror of wolvish invasion.
Yes, well put. The only thing that could make the book more relevant to the current situation would be if the wolves had come from Poland instead of Romania…
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