The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall is a work of realist fiction, a contemporary novel that tells the story of zoologist, conservationist and wolf specialist Rachel Caine. After having worked with wolves in North America for many years, estranged from her family, Rachel moves back home to the Lake District to supervise the reintroduction of a pair of wolves to England under the aegis of the Earl of Annerdale, and against the backdrop of the Scottish independence referendum.
The Wolf Border is an intriguing title, and a well chosen one. The epigraph says that the word susiraja in Finnish means wolf border, “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.” Ideas of borders, and wildness/tameness, abound – especially the idea of borders being crossed; of people, animals and even institutions moving between states of wilderness and civilisation.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this book is Hall’s treatment of the wolves themselves. The Wolf Border opens with Rachel dreaming about wolves, and remembering a time in her childhood when she wandered off at a zoo and encountered her first wolf. I initially wondered whether Hall was setting Rachel up to have a mystical, even psychic connection with wolves; to have a spirit animal. But no: the wolves remain believably wild animals, wary and elusive. They’re still fascinating, of course – they are the focus of Rachel’s professional life – but they remain resolutely un-anthropomorphised, un-tame.
It is the wolves – the animals, their place in Britain’s ecosystem, and people’s envisioning of them – that drive the plot. The catalyst is the Earl of Annerdale’s decision to transform part of his vast Lake District estates into a wolf sanctuary, and to reintroduce to England one pair of wolves to live there. He headhunts Rachel – who grew up in the Lake District – to manage the project, including managing the public outcry as the ancient fear of the wild predator is aroused. Rachel is initially reluctant to live so close to her sick, elderly mother but, when she becomes accidentally pregnant, decides to take the job in order to be able to get an abortion – illegal in the States – on the NHS.
The Earl of Annerdale is an intriguing character. He is enormously wealthy and powerful (at one point the Prime Minister stops by in his helicopter for dessert) and has an extraordinarily vast sense of entitlement; the extent of which we do not grasp until nearly the end of the book. His passion to reintroduce wolves to Britain seems to be driven as much arrogance as by a commitment to environmentalism. One of the most interesting subplots of The Wolf Border concerns his true motivations and mysterious family circumstances: where is his son, and how did his wife really die?
One of the main reasons The Wolf Border succeeds is because of its protagonist, Rachel. She is fascinating: competent, prickly, solitary. The Wolf Border is told in the third person, in the present tense, and without quote marks. We are always with Rachel, looking over her shoulder; she is present in every scene.
“She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border. And if this is where it has to begin in England, she thinks, this rich, disqualifying plot, with its private sponsorship and antiquated hierarchy, so be it. The ends justify the means.”
As the book progresses, though, we begin to realise that, even though Rachel’s working life is focused on wilderness, and bringing a sense of wilderness back to densely populated Britain, we are actually witnessing Rachel’s journey in the opposite direction. At the beginning of The Wolf Border Rachel is a lone ranger; determinedly single, limiting herself to casual sexual encounters only, and deliberating keeping only the loosest of ties with her mother and brother. But, gradually, she begins to cross the wolf border back into, as it were, the capital region. She visits her mother; and, following her mother’s death, decides to keep her baby. She starts getting involved in the life of her brother, Lawrence: his unhappy marriage, his terrible secret, and his psychological struggle with the emotional legacy of an unstable mother and an unidentified father.
She also allows herself to drift into a relationship with the local vet, Alexander. I found it refreshing that the romance, instead of being all-consuming, and the author’s chief concern, is entirely ordinary, and largely unexamined.
“She does not love him. That is, she does not feel love as described by others, the high and low arts, not in relation to the person here in her room. But all that is misnomer, poetry, an unproved chemical; he has survived her tendencies; he releases something in her, if only a feeling of wanting another day, a feeling that the day with him is better than ordinary.”
I recommend The Wolf Border highly. Hall has crafted a novel that is engagingly plotted, and enhanced rather than encumbered by its big ideas. One for environmentalists and lovers of family drama and political thrillers alike.
Review by Elizabeth Heritage, @e_heritage
The Wolf Border
by Sarah Hall
Published by Faber & Faber