Sense of place shapes relationships
The Wolf Border By Sarah Hall Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99 Wolves have long prowled the pages of literature, from fairytales and Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Angela Carter’s In the Company of Wolves, to name but a few. Wolves prowl Sarah Hall’s engrossing fifth novel, too, as the British author explores the powerfully political and the intimately personal. Her wolves ultimately set into high relief what it means to be human.
A prefatory note explains that the Finnish word susiraja means wolf border: “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.” The tension between civilisation and the wild, between the ordered veneer of society and instinctive emotions such as lust and need, crackles throughout this beguiling novel from the author of Haweswater and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo.
The narrator, Rachel Caine, works with wolves on an Idaho reservation and is geographically and emotionally distant from a home life that teems with conflict. Until, that is, she is drawn back to England’s Lake District, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale, who has a controversial scheme to reintroduce the grey wolf to the countryside.
The regeneration of the wilderness cleverly parallels Rachel’s inner growth and her steps towards reuniting with her estranged family. She arrives at Pennington Hall “nauseous with jet lag and service station coffee” yet still alert enough “to notice the beauty of the place”. It’s that capacity to notice beauty amid the ugliest of experiences that defines this character and highlights Hall’s lyric gifts.
As in her previous novels, Hall is masterful at evoking landscape. The moorland and Lakeland mountains are lushly evoked: “As a child, the territory seemed so wild that anything might be possible,” comments the narrator in a novel in which a sense of entrapment battles with that sense of possibility. “The moors were endless, haunting; they hid everything and gave up secrets only intermittently”.
This technique of concealing and revealing also cuts to the quick of the plot, with its gradual revelation of information. Hall has a fine eye for the details of the natural world. Yet, as well as the natural landscape, Hall also depicts the tumultuous political environment, including the Scottish independence struggles, in a narrative canvas that zooms from macrocosmic issues to microscopic detail. At the heart of the story is the idea of home — the desire to return, the desire to escape; the question of where our home is and the fears of what might destroy it.
“You must like being home again”, comments Thomas Pennington to Rachel. “It’s such a special place, isn’t it? It’s somehow gloriously in us.” Rachel has more ambivalent feelings, however, which Hall subtly draws out.
How does where we live affect our identity? What is the relationship between people and place? Hall tackles such questions vigorously, exploring the “great capital-countryside divide”. Her characters’ focal points are expanded until they are forced to apprehend the existence of other realities. Rachel wonders how to explain rural issues to Londoners who are “surprised by the fast trains north and the relative proximity of the Lake District to the Great Wen, surprised, it seems, that anything outside their own experience exists”.
For all the imaginative delight of its wolves, this novel comes alive in its intimate human struggles, particularly in the relationship between mothers and daughters: Rachel’s experience of motherhood and her fraught relationship with her mother chart complex generational shifts. At one point Rachel remembers walking with her mother on the moors: “She could take her mother’s hand, perhaps, and try to forge something in their last hours together. But what could she say?” This struggle to find the right words for the “inarticulable”, and the silence lying within our closest relationships, is depicted with great eloquence.