“One to linger over rather than race through” – The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

twbshWolves, borders: it’s there in the title. Hall’s fourth novel (fifth book) is all about that liminal space between wilderness and civilisation – the struggle to differentiate them or to adequately define or inhabit either – and she explores this awkward dichotomy in terms both of the Cumbrian terrain and the status of the national park as a ‘wild space’ and the wolf as a wild animal, and of the domestication necessitated (or otherwise) by childbirth and family life as experienced by her female main character. If you’ve read any of Hall’s previous work – I’m thinking Haweswater and The Carhullan Army in particular – you’ll probably dig the way she makes the borderlands landscape her own, as always, and fans of The Carhullan Army, too, will appreciate how she positions both gender politics in terms of her protagonist’s approach to female sexuality, and party politics, in her representation of the UK’s House of Lords and an imagined version of the Scottish Independence referendum.

Still with me? Okay, then. So this is the story of Rachel Caine, a wolf conservationist from the Lake District who’s been living and working on a reservation in Idaho. She’s offered a pretty weird job back in Cumbria (by Thomas Pennington, an Earl and a Liberal Democrat MP in the Conservative-Liberal coalition government) to manage a reintroduction project, whereby two wolves will be brought to Annerdale, the Pennington estate, to live in the English countryside (albeit, in a fenced subset thereof) for the first time in centuries. Rachel is reluctant: she’s got a troubled relationship with both her mother and her half-brother back in the UK and doesn’t really want to rekindle that; she’s uncomfortable with the politics behind the ownership of huge, private estates, and behind Pennington’s own government; she’s happy with her lifestyle in Idaho – her work, her friends, her active, but uncommitted sexual life. But then her mother, Binny, dies, and Rachel finds herself unexpectedly pregnant: she accepts the job and moves to a remote Cumbrian cottage and – minor spoiler – slowly accepts, or at least doesn’t contest, her pregnancy. The novel takes us through the wolves’ appearance and their settlement of the Annerdale land; Rachel’s tentative, and, later, deliberate reestablishment of a functional relationship with her estranged brother; her pregnancy and her experience of early parenthood; and it explores, too, the intertwined political ramifications both of the wolf project and, in this book, if not in reality, the realisation of Scottish independence.

It’s a steadily paced book that balances its various concerns – the plight of the wolves, Rachel’s personal life, the political developments in Scotland – very neatly, so that none are ever quite forgotten, but none dominate. The landscape – as ever, with Hall – is high in the mix, and rightly so: she’s something of a contemporary laureate of the Lakes and the fells, and the land is crucial to the book’s theme: again, the exploration of that border between what’s wild and what’s tame. The public’s (ill-founded) fear of the wolves; the cultivated wilderness of the Annerdale estate versus the wild cultivation of the Lake District National Park (the fact that the wolves can exist in Annerdale because Pennington, as a Peer, can put pressure on the Tory leader; the fact that they can’t be set free in the Park itself); the English idea of Scotland as a progressive socialist state versus a renegade catastrophe-in-the-making; Rachel’s conflicted position as a sexually-active woman and then a mother. (There’s more, too, but that would be a spoiler too far.) It’s a book, then, that deals in contradictions that it can’t ever fully (and doesn’t want to) resolve, and it does so without losing the story itself to the political ideas that underpin it.

Reservations? Well, while it’s very descriptive and evocative, the writing does occasionally feel a little flat – but that’s a function, really, of Rachel’s unwillingness to conform to the emotional stereotypes expected of her as a woman; the text echoes stylistically her reserve, a reserve that owes something to the wolves that she’s made her life for so long. It hasn’t got the driving fear and energy of The Carhullan Army or the simple yearning through-line of Haweswater; but that’s because it’s more subtle and ideologically ambitious than either of those – that liminal space, again, the problematics of the book’s politics, gives it an indeterminacy that makes it linger in a different manner to Haweswater’s elegiac beauty or Carhullan’s ferocity.

What else? Some of Hall’s scenes are brutally powerful: an old man’s bitter outburst at his wife’s funeral; Rachel’s conviction that she’s about to die in a helicopter accident and her thoughts – what she thinks will be her last thoughts – about her son. Because the narration is, in large part, unemotive, these sections are correspondingly enormously moving. The Scottish plot is interesting, too: both as a way of exploring particular political attitudes and issues, sure, but also with respect to the idea of the contemporary: the book was written pre-referendum – which, lest ye be oblivious, went the other way in real life after a very close race. Rather than dating the book (though time might tell on that score), this scenario gives it an alternative-future speculative vibe that fits well with the whole world-reintroduction plot; if the election had gone the other way, we’d have been interested in the retrospective effect that might have cast on our reading of the book.

Any Cop?: It’s a good read, if a relatively slow one; one to linger over rather than race through. Give it to your Yes-voting Glaswegian mates!

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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