The branches rustle behind her, the lipping wind or birds flitting between trunks, something stepping back under cover. There’s no one there, but she suddenly feels self-conscious, watched. She stands and looks into the trees, their dark old republic. The perfect environment for ambushing lynx, or bear. She would like to believe Thomas, to think that the country as a whole will one day re-wild, whatever its new man-made divisions created at the ballot box. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border. And if this is where it has to begin in England, she thinks, this rich, disqualifying plot, with its private sponsorship and antiquated hierarchy, so be it. The ends justify the means.
On my recent trip to London, during one of my leisurely browses in the Waterstones nearest my hotel, I got to chatting with the young woman at the counter and mentioned Sarah Moss. “Oh,” she said with enthusiasm: “She wrote Mrs. Fox.” “I don’t think so,” I replied, fairly certain but wondering if I’d somehow missed one of Moss’s novels. She, however, was very sure she was right and went defiantly off to confirm the authorship of Mrs. Fox on her computer. A minute or so later she came back and said (without a hint of apology for doubting me!) “Oh! That’s Sarah Hall.”
It’s an understandable enough confusion–two Sarahs, both alike in dignity! As I read The Wolf Border, though, I found myself thinking that, at least on the basis of this one novel by Sarah Hall, there is more proximity between these writers than just their first names. The Wolf Border had the same kind of propulsive but also cerebral energy that I enjoy and admire so much in Moss’s novels. It is built around a scenario that, like those in Moss’s fiction, is not at first glance terribly complicated, at least not structurally, but as the action unfolds its parts begin to resonate with meaning that amplifies their significance beyond the work they are doing as devices to move the characters along. There is a beautiful tactility to Hall’s rendering of nature, as there is to Moss’s in Ghost Wall, and, similar again, the landscape is haunted by its past, providing an alluring but also faintly threatening and unstable setting for a future that is uncertain in interesting ways. Here’s a small sample of Hall’s prose that for me captures something of its appeal:
She looks towards the hide. Under the netting, Gregor will still be filming, focusing the high-powered lens, perhaps following their progress between the thorn trees, along the ridge to the summit, where they will contemplate the broad expanses of Annerdale, and decide which route to take. Rachel looks over the estate. Russet ferns and the knitted furze. The signature fells beyond. Long silhouettes drool from bushes and trees; all the land’s contours are exposed, every curve, every corrie and glacier cut, everything looks shadow-cast, so beautifully sheer.
It’s not mannered or ornate, but its rhythms are varied and its vocabulary and word placement are full of small surprises.
The subjects under observation in that excerpt are the two wolves whose introduction onto the Annerdale estate Rachel has overseen as part of an ambitious plan to restore the natural balance of predators and prey. Through Rachel’s work Hall provides a fascinating overview of this process and trains us to look with awed but also, perhaps strangely, loving eyes at the wolves themselves. While they are still in quarantine during the first phase of their introduction to their new territory, Rachel watches them through the night-vision cameras the team has set up:
After a while, they move up towards the hide, into plain view, their coats strangely highlighted, eyes eerie bulbs of light. Darkness is liberty for them, but what comes in darkness to challenge their dominance is the worst thing they face. Another pack, ambushing. Humans. Juggernauts on the highways. Tonight they are playful. Ra trots alongside and then passes Merle, falls back, passes her again. He rises on his hind legs, circles his head, like a boxer. He tugs at her ruff. The day’s languid canine is gone. He is a night hunter, like the legend. . . Ra rolls on his back, rubbing the top of his head backward and forward on the ground, his legs kicking, dopey, submissive. Merle stands over him. Rachel smiles. It is at night that they seem most sacred to her: ghost-like, elegant, and frivolous.
Later, when the wolves are free to roam more widely, she takes a friend’s daughter out to see if they can get a glimpse of them. They spot them”picking their way past boulders and trees”:
They move mostly in plain view, disappearing for a time behind rods of stone, Merle smoking through the brown bracken. Ra’s pale coat glows in the winter gloom like halogen. They disappear into a grove of trees beside the river.
It is “less than a minute’s payoff for half a day’s investment” but the girl is thrilled: “she is the first child in England to see wild wolves at large.” The excitement is contagious: I found myself completely absorbed by the drama of these animals, so fierce and beautiful and yet, by some, feared and unwelcome and thus vulnerable.
The wolves’ story is entwined with the story of Rachel’s pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the evolution of her relationships with her brother, from whom she has long been alienated. Without setting up overt or heavy-handed parallels, Hall creates a sense of common rhythms to the two stories: Merle and Ra grow in confidence, expanding their domain and skills and, eventually, their own family, as Rachel in her turn is easing the tight control she has always kept over herself, allowing other people into her space and finding there is room in it for feelings she had always thought were antithetical to her independence. As the wolves grow wilder, she becomes more domestic–but that is too pat a way to put either unfolding story. Rachel’s experience in particular shows there are risks and challenges at home too: different needs and desires to be held in what is sometimes a precarious balance. Then alongside this personal drama there’s also a political dimension, one that didn’t really come into focus for me until fairly late in the novel, though it’s clear from early on that Hall is interested in the artifice of human barriers (fences, walls, borders) and the tension they create with nature, which does not understand or respect them. One thing Rachel and her team cannot do is let the wolves run truly wild, for example, but as long as they are enclosed, no matter how generous the space allotted, they must be managed, their natural proclivities shaped to fit man-made limitations. What would it mean for them (or us) to override these boundaries?
To return to my Sarah Moss comparison, I found The Wolf Border not just well-written and engrossing but consistently interesting in the same way that I did The Tidal Zone or Ghost Wall. It’s a novel that is clearly motivated by ideas but it isn’t overwhelmed by them. I have stepped lightly across its specific events, partly because it isn’t really a plot-driven novel, but its plot does have an elegant arc to it that does more than provide an excuse to write marvelously about wolves. I chose The Wolf Border because it looked a bit more conventional than Hall’s other novels, but I trust her enough now that if I only could, I would duck back into Waterstones and pick up the rest of them.