At the start of "The Wolf Border", Rachel Cain, an English zoologist, is living a stable, semi-wild, almost solitary life working on the grey wolf recovery program in the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Idaho. The book, told from Rachel's point of view, covers a period where her life changes fundamentally as she returns to her native English Lake District to work for an eccentric Earl, reconnects with her estranged family, deals with being pregnant and leads a project to reintroduce grey wolves to the North of England.
The book has a strong plot that deals with politics and class and the struggle between the wild and the civilized. On that level alone it would be compelling but what sets it apart is Sarah Hall's muscular writing and her unflinching insights into people.
The language is sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always precise. The people are complex and real. The book is filled with sex, death, science, addiction, grief, motherhood and many varieties of love and distaste. The sex is described with an honesty that is so unusual it is almost shocking. The raw pain and anger that death produces in those who are forced to watch it and survive it are graphically evoked. The overwhelming experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood are embraced without being romanticised.
One the themes of this book is rewilding, the untaming of our countryside by returning to it predators that we have long since exterminated. Rachel Caine is working towards this and,
"...would like to believe there will be a place again where the street lights end and wilderness begins: the wolf border."
Rachel walks this border throughout the book, sometimes seeing herself and those around her primarily as animals dominating their territory but still driven by basic needs and urges, sometimes feeling the pull to retreat from that wilderness into a safer world where she can protect the family and friends that she loves.
Rachel stumbles into motherhood through accident and hesitation. Its effect on her is transformative. It changes who she is, not just by making her into someone who would give her life for her child but by making her understand that her new-found vulnerability is also the key to seeing herself and the world clearly. She tells herself
"The only wound is life recklessly creating it knowing it will never be safe it will never last it will only ever be real."
One of the things that I enjoyed about this book was the way in which the Earl and his daughter were portrayed. It perfectly captured the charm and the power of this class and made my hackles rise in self-defense far more than encountering any wolf would.
I recommend the audiobook edition, narrated by Louise Brealey who has the perfect pace and the slightly hard-edged delivery needed for "The Wolf Border".
Sarah Hall interviews well. She's frank, articulate and doesn't conform to the traditional "book plug" format.
If you'd like to hear her views on "The Wolf Border", take a look at the interviews below in The Guardian and The Independent.
The books interview: the author of The Electric Michelangelo talks about her new book, The Wolf Border, how motherhood has affected her work and why avoiding politics in fiction is juvenile.
One Minute Interview in The Independent