Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews

The Wolf Border

The Wolf Border
Sarah Hall.
Faber. 2015. 435 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 29955 3.

Review by Ann Skea

She would like to believe that there will be a place again where the streetlights end and the wilderness begins. The wolf border.

Buy now from Amazon! Rachel Caine may love wolves and work with wolves, but she is a scientist who knows their nature well and is clear-sighted about reintroducing them to places like Great Britain, where the last wolf was shot in 1680 and where superstition and fear of wolves have a long history.

Rachel has worked for ten years on an American Indian Reservation in Idaho, observing, tracking, and monitoring the wolves who travel between the Reservation and Canada. She is called back to her childhood home in Cumbria by the ill-health of her feisty, unconventional, and abrasive mother, and by the "whimsy" of a wealthy Earl who wants her to manage his project for introducing the Grey Wolf to his extensive Lake District Estate.

Initially, she refuses the job, telling her half Lapwai Indian friend and colleague, Kyle, it is "a mad hope-and-glory project"—a scheme dreamed up by an eccentric who has influential friends. An impulsive New-Year's-Eve sexual encounter with Kyle, however, leaves her pregnant, and the death of her mother resolves the conflicts that initially drove her away. So, she changes her mind, accepts the Earl of Annandale's offer, and without telling Kyle of her pregnancy, returns to England.

There are borders of many kinds in this novel. Fenced, like the Earl of Annandale's wolf enclosure, and unfenced (except by social convention), like those part of human life—birth, death, addiction, politics, wealth. Sarah Hall explores many of them, treading the zones between wilderness and wildness so subtly and beautifully, is difficult to convey the richness she achieves in this short review.

Rachel, at the center of the story, is an honest, intelligent, and independent woman, and an easy character to like. She copes with many changes: meeting the local people and her fellow workers on the Estate; getting used to the Earl's upper-class, peripatetic life-style and his easy comradeship with people in high places; the strangeness of living on a carefully managed estate where nature, too, is controlled; and, especially, getting used to the necessary restrictions and strangeness of pregnancy and motherhood. She negotiates difficult meetings with her estranged brother and becomes involved with his problems. She establishes an easy sexual relationship with Alexander, the local vet. And she has a calm, natural authority in her job. All this is balanced by the logistics and work of flying two wild wolves from Romania, transporting them through England to the Estate, settling them into their new environment, and watching their progress.

The wolves and Rachel's relationship with them are an essential part of the book. Hall writes vividly of their lives, their hunting, their eventual mating, and the birth and parental training of the cubs. Her descriptions of the land and the seasons are sensuous and exact: "webbed lungs of cloud" hang over the hills; the wolves "smell the stag musk, rowan, the mountain streams"; and "Fish glimmered in the shallows, dark gold, blunt-headed—trout. The wolves might go for them, once released, straddling the rocks and snapping them out—she's seen them fish for salmon." And Rachel's ambivalent feelings about pregnancy, and then about motherhood—the physical and emotional changes, the demands, the uncontrollable and often frustrating nature of it all—are wholly believable.

The story is set at another boundary, too. A political referendum about independence for Scotland takes place and is won, setting Scotland free from English control. A new sort of civilization, different laws, and different controls of wilderness and wildness begin. And, in the end, the wolves are part of this.

All-in all, The Wolf Border is a beautiful, well-written, enjoyable, and absorbing book.


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