Recent experiments in “rewilding” predatory species hunted to near extinction have succeeded in both Europe and America. Yellowstone National Park reintroduced wolves in the 1990s. To the consternation of French sheep farmers, Europe is now home to 12,000 wolves. Restoring a missing layer of large predators keeps deer numbers down, increases biodiversity, and has the capacity to make money from gawking tourists.
The British protagonist in Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Rachel Caine, is overseeing the reintroduction of wolves on a reservation in Idaho when she is summoned by a wealthy landowner in the Lake District. The Earl of Anner-dale, Thomas Pennington, wishes to install a pair of wolves on his estate — carefully fenced from the community — and will pay handsomely for her expertise. Raised in the region herself, Rachel visits Annerdale. But Pennington is arrogant and presumptuous. She advises the earl how to import wolves from Romania, but otherwise says “no thanks”.
Yet after a drunken one-off with her best friend back on the Idaho reservation, Rachel gets pregnant. Panicking, unsure whether to keep the child, and neglecting to inform the father of her condition, she returns to Annerdale to shepherd Pennington’s project and consider her options. Mind, at this point in the story, I jotted in the margin: “Fictional characters never have abortions any more. If this one does, I’ll fall off my chair.” Rest assured that I remained safely seated.
Hall made an intriguing formal choice by setting this novel astraddle the Scottish independence referendum — which passes in the book. Given her publication date, Hall would have drafted the manuscript before September 2014. Her calculation was shrewd: if the referendum passed, her plot would seem prescient; if it didn’t, she would construct a pleasing counterfactual narrative. Win-win. So what wasn’t really a risk pays off.
Rewilding is a compelling topic. Thus the fact that large tracts of the book are devoted to Rachel’s personal story instead becomes a frustration. Perhaps the problem is structural. That personal story — Rachel’s getting reacquainted with her brother Lawrence, helping him to recover from a failing marriage and drug addiction, finding a local boyfriend, struggling with unplanned pregnancy and single motherhood — is insufficiently integrated with the ongoing story about the wolves.
Yes, two grey wolves are indeed shipped to Annerdale. They bond, mate, and bear a litter. But parallel procreation is too tentative a link. The wolves dominate in a few early sections, and at the end. Yet even in these bracketing appearances, the animals are seen from a distance, and in-between is mostly a baby. That baby burbles, fusses, and draws his mother’s fierce love and protection, as a baby would. But for the reader, the baby is not a compelling character, and by the end I was sort of hoping that one of the wolves would eat it. At least then the two stories would belong in the same book.
The primary relationship that does involve the wolves, between Rachel and their benefactor, remains static. She doesn’t like Thomas Pennington to begin with; over time, she likes him less. Aside from a determination to get his way — which may be the point — what makes Pennington want to introduce wolves to the British Isles so badly remains a little vague. Rachel herself concludes that her employer is “unfathomable”, and his obligatory backstory about an accident that killed his wife feels inorganic.
Pennington may be a nod towards the real conservationist Paul Lister, the affluent owner of the Alladale estate in the Scottish highlands who is committed to rewilding in his domain. (Hall’s Annerdale may be a deliberate conflation of Alladale in Sutherland and the Wild Ennerdale project in Cumbria.) Pennington is portrayed as high-handed, glib and superior. He has money and connections, and doesn’t believe ordinary rules apply to him. He’s a member of “the ebullient, boyish elite, which is anything but harmless, and masks, in fact, something very dangerous”. He possesses one ardent conviction: “I am right, therefore I have the right.” However well described, he’s a stereotype. But then, lacerating the toffs is always a crowd-pleaser.
Make no mistake, Hall is an accomplished wordsmith. The novel’s prose is meticulous. She has earned her reputation as a writer who describes nature without sentimentality: “there’s a sweet, spermy fragrance in the air, a scent both exquisite and intolerable”. Characters are treated to the same ambivalence: Pennington and his “blankly beautiful” daughter are “mesmerising and faintly sickening to watch — polished, too enjoying of each other for the average family”. Hall can turn a trenchant phrase: England is “a country particularly owned”.
Yet as a whole, The Wolf Border doesn’t quite conceptually cohere. Erase the wolves, and you still have fundamentally the same plot. (Though we are confronted with a wolf-related conspiracy in the climax, its logic is flawed. I won’t reveal the twist, but what happens could not have been contrived with the surety the author implies.) The rewilding aspect of this novel is too much in the background, not the meat but a seasoning. Like Hall’s ostensible subject matter, I’m a carnivore. I wanted the wolves to be the main course.
The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall, Faber & Faber, RRP£17.99, 448 pages
Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel is ‘Big Brother’ (HarperCollins)
Illustration by Dan Mitchell
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that the protagonist’s name is Rachel; the original version had a different name in the third and fifth paragraphs