The increasing extinction of various species in the UK and around the world is something that preoccupies me immensely. When listening to Sarah Hall speak about The Wolf Border at the Balham Literary Festival earlier this year, I think everyone in the room, felt captivated by this possibility that wolves could return the UK. Even if there hadn’t been a collective deflated sigh when she said that ‘rewilding’ was extraordinarily unlikely, the disappointment in the air was palpable. But reading The Wolf Border, I was able to forget that, and lose myself in a passionate, intelligent, and completely enthralling story about motherhood, family, class, power, nature, and of course the logistics of bringing wolves back to the UK.
For almost a decade, Rachel Caine has lived in Idaho working on a wolf reservation, having fled her past and her family. On a rare visit to her dying mother, she also visits the Earl of Annerdale who wants her to run a unique project – he plans to reintroduce wolves to his estate in the Lake District. Rachel declines – she enjoys her work in Idaho, and she doesn’t completely trust the Earl. But shortly after her return to the US, unforeseen circumstances will see her change her mind and return to the UK to accept the offer.
Sarah is a prickly character, suspicious and uncomfortable around people, and almost self-satisfied in her assumptions of those around her. Throughout however, her worldview will be questioned, occasionally reinforced, but also challenged as she attempts a reconciliation with her estranged brother, begins a relationship she didn’t expect and faces the equally unexpected challenge of motherhood. This is a wild novel, uplifting, lyrically written but also thrilling. It’s impossible not to feel captivated by the vivid descriptions of outdoors, to root for the wolves Merle and Ra, but also for Rachel. As the story builds however, the feeling of foreboding can’t be shaken off, though when the blow does come, it is from the most unlikely of sources.
The Wolf Border came out over a year ago, but feels startlingly relevant now. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Scottish independence vote, with politicians renamed, but very recognisable. I can’t have been the only reader to chuckle when we’re introduced to Caleb Douglas, the Scottish First Minister, a ‘round-faced, heavy-chinned man with thinning hair […] with the look of a retired boxer.’ Also, as the rewilding project attracts protestors and detractors, Rachel attempts to reason with them but soon determines to ignore them, reasoning ‘the fearful will always be afraid, the ideological will believe until the last shred of evidence is offered. Only time will prove them wrong.’ I read this in the build up to the election and reasoned that things could be worse… I wonder whether Sarah Hall could ever have suspected to what extent we would be living in a ‘post-truth’ world by now.
This may be one of the finest books I’ve read this year, and this has been a good year for books for me! If you were late to The Wolf Border game like me, don’t let it pass you by and read it when you can.
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall is out now, published by Faber & Faber.