The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

The Wolf Border is Sarah Hall’s fifth novel, but the first of hers I've read. After The Wolf Border I'll certainly look out for more of her work.

Rachel Caine is a zoologist who works on a wolf conservation programme, stationed on a Native American reservation. When she is offered the chance to oversee an experiment to reintroduce wolves to a secured area of land in Cumbria, close to where she grew up, she initially turns down the role; although left to fend for themselves, the wolves are essentially captive, and Rachel is unsure of the motives of the rich aristocrat-turned-entrepeneur, the Earl of Annerdale, on whose land the project will take place. But when two life-changing events occur within a short period, returning to Cumbria becomes as much as about escaping as coming home.

It isn’t the plot that makes The Wolf Border a compelling read – indeed, some readers might find it a little anticlimactic in that sense, as what little conflict there is tends to resolve itself fairly rapidly. What makes this book stand out is Sarah Hall’s beautiful, incredibly vivid prose, combined with a character-driven narrative. The novel deals in various ways with freedom, wildness and regeneration, with the wolves themselves becoming an extended metaphor for growth, fertility and rebirth in an emotional sense as well as a physical one, the developments in their lives often mirroring Rachel’s own. There are also elements of psychogeography in Hall's stunning descriptions of the Cumbrian landscape, and the effects of human intervention upon it.

Another strong thread running through the book is an exploration of the influence of parents on the children. Rachel and her half-brother Lawrence are both shaped in different ways by their difficult childhood with their eccentric, promiscuous mother Binny, frail and incontinent at the start of The Wolf Border but still in some ways the formidable force she once was. Rachel, despite the physical and emotional distance between herself and her mother, frequently echoes her behaviour both consciously and unconsciously. Rachel's childhood leaves her rejecting emotional closeness, while Lawrence seems to crave love and stability. Sylvia and Leo Pennington, the Earl of Annerdale’s children, are bowed by the weight of inherited responsibility and the whims of their father. 

The Wolf Border is also set against a backdrop of political change, with a fictional Prime Minister presiding over a Britain in which Scotland has just won its independence referendum. While this isn’t a major part of the story, borders are always oddly fascinating to me and indeed, when problems arise with the Cumbria wolf programme, the England-Scotland split acquires a vital significance. I would, however, have liked to see this explored in a little more depth, as there are times when its treatment feels a little cursory, as if an opportunity were being wasted, particularly when it comes to the Earl’s own interests and motives.

This book’s biggest strength is the sheer quality of its prose, which is remarkable throughout. The passages in which Rachel observes the wolves are, in particular, beautifully written, and her unsentimental love and respect for them and all that they represent shines from the page. Every character is perfectly described, and every line of dialogue is convincing. Earl of Annerdale Thomas Pennington is a perfect rendition of a man with too much entitlement, too much money and too few people around him who are prepared to say no. There is not a single poorly-chosen word in this novel.

As a lead character, Rachel herself is not always entirely sympathetic; she can be cold and distant, even selfish. However, like most of us, Rachel is trying to do her best in the only way she knows how – professionally and personally. When we first meet her at the start of the book, she has spent the past ten years in America, not only avoiding her family but also making a point of forming no new close bonds of her own. By the end of the novel, Rachel’s life has changed immensely and we get the sense of a character regenerated and renewed.