Both wolves, and borders, are rich in metaphor as well as in tangible reality
Sarah Hall’s book The Wolf Border is a deep and absorbing one – thoughtful, intensely visceral, exploring ideas and feelings the reader will be left thinking about, as well as luring that reader in with story, not to mention a wonderful sense of place in natural environments
Rachel Caine is a biologist, an animal behaviourist and environmentalist. She specialises in wolves. At the start of the novel she is one of a team of equally dedicated people working in a reservation in Nez Perce county, Idaho.The wolves are tracked, living free, and are also of course at risk from wolf haters (so deep does the wolf lie in our collective unconscious as a metaphor for many things) and from hunters whose relationship with the wild is to need to conquer, master and kill it.
Rachel is an English woman, a middle aged English woman, with a complicated family history back in the Lake District. Daughter of a rackety, wilful, independent woman who loved sex but was not a natural mother, though she did set her daughter free into independence, Rachel has put an ocean between herself and her mother, and between herself and her far less resilient younger brother. Drawn back to visit her mother, now elderly, and in a nursing home, heading towards the end days, she is also in ‘Annerdale’ – a vast, composite part of the protected National Park of Cumbria, which Hall is careful not to pin to too much specificity – for other reasons.
A wealthy, powerful aristocrat, close to the seat of government, Thomas Pennington, Earl of Annerdale, has a project to reintroduce wild wolves to wild Cumbria, in a large and boundaried area of his land. Bringing wild wolves back, safely though, to this country, where many centuries ago they once lived. Bringing back a top indigenous predator as a way to control rising native deer populations. A more natural method of control than the culls of hunting for sport. Pennington wishes to head-hunt Rachel.
Rachel has no reason to want to join Pennington’s project, there are class divides, and an innate suspicion of those who are so invested with power, property, prestige – a privileged mainly boys club. The setting is 2014, moving towards the Scottish referendum.
However, despite her distrust of Pennington, and her commitment to Idaho, events in her personal life bring her to accept the offer. The wolf, and the borders which must be created and maintained in the landscape to keep civilisation safe, and more, importantly, to keep the civilised world thinking it is safe and able to ignore ‘wild’, and the call of ‘wild’ within itself. There are a dizzying multiplicity of borders within this book – most powerfully between what we believe is ‘human, conscious, rational’ and what lies beneath, in darkness, instinct, viscera, the limbic system. The humans wear masks, clothes, surround themselves with pretences of rationality and, well, being human, not animal – but older, deeper calls lie hidden in the blood. Sex, procreation, territory, visceral embodiment are shown at work.
The wolf, in reality as well as in symbol represents something free, unconfined, authentic – and also dangerous. Rachel will be confronted by her own struggles to accommodate the intellectual and emotional freedom, the absence of relationship tethers, with another side to her nature, another side to instinct, which in the end confines as much as it expands and extends her – motherhood.
There are other people in her world who will also be engaged in that kind of struggle within their nature.
Although Hall sets her story in a particular region, and against the background of particular political concerns (the Scottish Independence referendum) she makes the decision to not have any ‘real’ individuals have an active place in her story. So, for example, though reference is made to Gordon Brown’s campaigning and influence on the ‘Better Together’ campaign, Brown does not physically make an appearance, or engage with any of the characters in The Wolf Border. However the Prime Minister, and the leader of the SNP at that time, are both characters who engage with Thomas Pennington, and in the case of the PM, visit Pennington Hall. Except that the PM is not called David Cameron, though he clearly stands for him, nor is the leader of the SNP and Scotland’s then first minister called Alex Salmond. This gives Hall the possibility to explore further both the mythic and the actual impact of what such an idea – the re-introduction of a wild predator, at the top of a food chain, might be, in terms of symbol and on the ground management of wildness.
I felt this decision added some interesting dimensions to her story.
There was one strand which I wasn’t quite sure about, which was the story, and eventual revelations connected with her brother, Lawrence. I felt they were possibly a device so that Lawrence was on hand for childcare, which otherwise might have proved problematic practically, given Rachel’s own nature, and the fierce pulls made by, one the one hand, her maternal instincts, and, on the other, the power of her connection to the wolves, symbolically and actually
Now I don’t know about you, but the howling of wolves is one of most beautiful, most unearthly sounds I can imagine. Foolish, I’m sure, but I’d want to go run with them…..