Book review: The Wolf Border

TENSION runs under the narrative of this fine novel like a river under a cave. 

Sarah Hall

Faber, €16.99; ebook, €12.53

The result is thrilling, even if sometimes the thrill is simply because of the author’s imaginative audacity.

Sarah Hall has never been afraid to ask ‘why’ or ‘what if’, and here, for purposes of the story she is telling, she suggests, for example, that the recent Scottish referendum resulted in success for the Yes vote with the crisp result at the end of a paragraph that Great Britain no longer exists.

Placing such a historic — if imaginary — event as an extension to an episode about something else entirely is part of what Hall can do brilliantly: she layers her hints efficiently and what seems like a coda, slightly off centre to what is really happening, emerges as a crucial development. It’s smart, it’s engaging when one appreciates it, and it isn’t over-worked.

So Scottish devolution is a minor issue as zoologist Rachel Caine takes up her new post on an aristocratic country estate in England, arriving to oversee the reintroduction of the grey wolf to the hills of the Lake District.

The wolf is an apex predator, and minor or not, Scotland matters, its new freedoms defining it quickly as something like a refuge from the less consistent liberalities of England.

Rachel herself is returning to a country which she left carrying a burden of unresolved family unhappiness.

It is probably no real coincidence that her work abroad, and especially in America, was to do with wolf welfare, through which she comes to an enlightened understanding of pack loyalties and feral survival.

Now reprieved by the death of her mother she finds it possible to contemplate a return to her native Cumbria.

The fact that she is also pregnant and discovering the ferocious impulses of motherhood influences any remaining decisions, and Hall writes superbly on this theme, knitting the instinct for shelter and nurturing into her exploration of wilderness and wildlife and of the motives and commitment of those responsible for their best management.

Wildlife moves according to its own imperatives; human life is less predictable, and as Rachel gradually relaxes into more demanding but more fulfilling relationships with her colleagues so she grasps that the wolves themselves will not settle into what Hall describes as a ‘boil-in-the-bag Eden’.

Although she realises that an antiquated hierarchy can make restoration of a kind just about possible, it is not of a kind she wants — and anyway the wolves decide for themselves.

Some readers may be uncomfortably reminded of the difficulties faced by the programme to reintroduce the white-tailed sea eagle to Ireland; however symbolic, however beautiful, such raptors are not welcomed in many farming communities and they are also vulnerable to callous egg-hunters.

For Rachel in The Wolf Border the potential threat is posed by extreme animal rights organisations, but it is the potential of the animals to roam, to explore territory and to find their prey which has been underestimated; a little local sabotage and the hunt is on.

Balancing so many features, from personal allegiances to parental bonding, to the allure of wild natural landscapes and their creatures of earth and sky, is Hall’s outstanding achievement in this novel.

A multi-award winning novelist, she writes quietly and without headlines and her gentle skill also allows a luscious eroticism when describing sex. The Wolf Border is about reintroducing wolves, but it is clear that it is about reintroducing people as well.

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