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Sarah Hall: The Wolf Border

Rachel Caine is around forty years of age. She studied zoology at the University of Aberystwyth. She worked in rescue centres in Romania and Belarus and as a volunteer in Yellowstone, before getting her current job, on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, where she manages the wolf population. She is very enthusiastic about the wolves and she and her colleagues track their movements and behaviour and watch out for illegal hunters. Her romantic life consists of casual flings, with visitors to the area, though she has had several flings with one of her colleagues, who is hoping the relationship is going to become more substantial. He will be disappointed. She remains on very good terms with Kyle, another colleague, but there is as yet no romance.

In some respects, she is like her mother, Binny. Rachel’s father was very soon dispensed with and Binny brought up Rachel and her half-brother, Lawrence, on her own. She had a succession of lovers (she apparently broke up several marriages), which bothered Lawrence far more than it bothered Rachel. Binny ran the local post office in a small village in Cumbria, challenging the status quo by selling The Guardian and condoms. Binny is now in a care home, having had a mastectomy, though she remains feisty. Mother and daughter continue to have a difficult relationship.

Early on in the novel, Rachel flies to England, where she is to be interviewed for a job. Thomas Pennington, the eleventh Earl of Annerdale, owns a huge estate in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. His wife was killed and he was injured in a microlight accident. He has two children, Sylvia and Leo. He wants to reintroduce wolves into England, onto his estate, and he wants Rachel to manage the project. It is not entirely clear why Rachel agrees to come to the interview as she clearly has no intention of taking the job. However, it does give her a chance to visit her mother, whose care home is nearby, though the pair end up arguing as usual. Rachel also manages to avoid seeing Lawrence. She gets on with him fairly well but cannot stand his wife, Emily. The feeling is mutual. Rachel meets Pennington, visits the estate and learns more of the project but declines the job but does offer to provide any help she can. Indeed, she puts him in touch with a rescue centre in Romania, which is able to provide him with two wolves.

Back in the US, Rachel soon learns that her mother has committed suicide. Because of the winter she cannot get back to England and Emily is highly critical, resulting in communication between Rachel and Lawrence being cut off. Rachel and Kyle struggle with the winter and also have a quick fling. She soon realises that she is pregnant. She does not tell Kyle. She realises that her health insurance will neither cover an abortion nor childbirth. There is only one solution. She contacts Thomas Pennington again to see if the job is still open. It is. She accepts and returns to England.

Her first day there, she is invited to a welcome dinner, where the local great and good are in attendance and the prime minister (a thinly disguised David Cameron) even puts in a flying visit. She does not feel at home, either with the great and good nor with the gamekeeper, who clearly sees her as a rival. The fact that the project has a lot of local opposition makes her job more difficult.

The rest of the book follows four plot lines. First, of course, is what happens to the wolves, their care and conservation, their behaviour, the involvement of Rachel and others with them and the reactions of the outside world. The second follows Rachel’s personal life, which is not always straightforward. The third follows the situation with her brother and her sister-in-law and Rachel’s relationship with them, also not always straightforward. The fourth, and perhaps most surprising, follows the Scottish referendum on independence. In real life, this took place on 18 September 2014. I do not know whether Hall knew the result by the time this book was complete. However, we do follow the run-up to the referendum and the fall-out from the result, though it does not play much of a role for most of the book. However, there is a major plot twist towards the end, which brings together all these four plot lines.

Sarah Hall always writes well and always write from the perspective of the people of her home region, Cumbria. However, this book takes an even more interesting tack. She compares wolves and humans and, on the whole, wolves come out well ahead. They come out ahead on food acquisition and consumption, on social behaviour and cooperation (with other wolves), on sex and romance, on childbirth and child-rearing and on knowing what it is that they want out of life. Hall shows the behaviour of wolves in these various areas and shows the behaviour of humans in the same areas, though she does not drive the point home but leaves us to draw our own conclusions. I have never felt any love for wolves or any desire to be one but, after reading this book, you cannot but help see them in a new, far more positive light and wonder why if they can do it, why can’t we? She also clearly believes that there is very much a place for wolves in contemporary Britain. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border.

Speaking of her mother, Rachel thinks But you’ve never seen a wolf, standing against the skyline in profile, you’ve never seen a wolf running alongside an elk, seeing through the flurry of back legs to the single, perfect moment of the strike. There is no greater beauty.. The main topic of this book is the wolves, despite the various plots involving Rachel and others. However, it is not mawkish nor Disneyesque, but simply the admiration of a human for another species, another species she has got to know as well as a human can get to know another species. There is a wolf story and there are other stories, all well told, but it is the wolves you will remember long after you have forgotten Rachel, her family and Thomas Pennington and his family, and certainly long after you have forgotten the David Cameron character, both the real one and the one in this book.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Faber & Faber