The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
In Sarah Halls’ fifth novel The Wolf Border, the central subject, the wolves that will begin the rewilding of Britain, are rarely seen. ‘They are fleet or lazy, moving through their own tawny colourscape and sleeping under logs – missable either way.’ As Rachel Caine, zoologist and wolf expert says, for the wolf to truly be wild, human engagement must be absent. Summoned home to Cumbria, to entertain a rich man’s whimsy and see her dying mother, Rachel returns to an England whose ‘interior routes move sluggishly’ as a lone wolf herself, separate and wary of others, determined to remain only tenuously connected. As she seeks to reintroduce the grey wolf to Cumbria she reluctantly reintroduces herself.
Sarah Hall has written a novel in which at every moment life is happening, robust and fecund, bursting out of the landscape of Cumbria and Rachel herself. Whether describing the scent of her dying mother Binny ‘the reek of sweat and ammonia – not the Paestum Rose Binny once favoured, gifted by suitors and worn high in the wen of her thighs’ or the climb to the peak of a mountain that ‘does not sit in isolation from its range, but is independent; its heavy arms plunge down and away,’ the detail is inexorably immersive, brutal yet wistful. In this manner the novel progresses, and, while much happens, plot is not the primary driver of the narrative. The plot I could sum up in a few lines about the return to northern England of the wolves eradicated more than 500 years before, of the zoologist who will manage their return, and the Earl who wants to form a vast wild park. The way in which these aims and elements intersect with the vote for Scottish independence is intriguing and unexpected, and yet that is not what I loved about this novel. What remains with me is the scent of the iron and minerals under an Earth that was once wild, a place I have never been except for the 400 pages I just spent in it.
Marie Matteson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.