Sense of place shapes re­la­tion­ships

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Anita Sethi

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.

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