Between land and sea, day and night, life and death and the like, there lie those borders that, much as we might try, we cannot deny. Equally, though, there are those we impose: make-believe borders drawn to defend against that which we fear, as well as to keep what we want for ourselves within.
Set in the pristine wilderness split down the middle by the border between Scotland and England—as powerful a haunt here as it’s ever been—in the run-up to and the aftermath of 2014’s hotly fought Independence Referendum, Sarah Hall’s fifth work of fiction is a sumptuous study of truth and trust some are sure to slight because it seems slow… but no. The Wolf Border takes longer than I’d like to find its feet, but before long it’s toddling confidently, then running rampant—not unlike the near-mythical infant its protagonist produces.
An age ago, wildlife biologist Rachel Caine escaped this close-knit community—most notably her suffocating mother—to run a sanctuary of sorts in Idaho. There, she learned how to live and how to love—not by befriending her fellows, but by watching the wild wolf packs that prowl the plains of the reservation.
At the outset of Hall’s novel, Rachel has to head home for her first visit in what feels like forever:
The last ended badly, with an argument, a family riven. She is being called upon to entertain a rich man’s whimsy, a man who owns almost a fifth of her home county. And her mother is dying. Neither duty is urgent; both players will wait, with varying degrees of patience. Meanwhile, snow. The Chief Joseph wolves are scenting hoof prints, making forays from the dent. The pups have grown big and ready, any day now they will start their journey.
See how the author suggests something of Rachel’s situation in the same breath as introducing the wolves? That’s not an accident. Next to nothing about this book is. The Wolf Border is almost impossibly purposeful: its every element is meticulously measured, developed with painstaking consideration, before being brought to a carefully controlled conclusion.
That Hall knows exactly what she’s doing is a huge boon, to be sure, but if I was forced to fault The Wolf Border, I’d have to haver about how her deliberate deployment of plot points and key character beats can come off as over-cautious, especially early on in the novel. Take Rachel’s homecoming. Her heart just isn’t in it. Nor, evidently, is England entirely prepared to receive her:
The drive from London has taken eight hours: congestion around the airport and the north orbital, an accident south of Kendal, all lanes halted until the air ambulance could set down on the carriageway to collected the shattered motorcyclist. As ever, the county’s interior routes move sluggishly: compact dry-stone lanes and dawdling sightseers. A landslide on one of the mountain passes has resulted in a road closure, so she must turn back at the barrier and take the longer lakeside road into the western valleys.
To make matters worse, when Rachel finally arrives at her destination, her mother’s company frustrates her—infuriates her, in fact; she misses an opportunity to build bridges between herself and her brother; and she simply can’t bring herself to believe in the Earl of Annerdale’s dream of rewilding wolves in the countryside of Cumbria—so back to Idaho she goes.
Only for a moment, though; a few brief but bleak weeks during which she stupidly sleeps with her best friend, falls pregnant with Kyle’s child and finally jacks in her job at the reservation to take the aforementioned Earl up on his offer—not because her mother has passed away during the days our protagonist wastes, although she has, tragically, but because Rachel realises she’s fucked up so much of she’d achieved over the years whilst stuck on self-destruct.
Back in Annerdale, where she stays for the duration of the tale, Rachel “is as she was the day before: the same person, charged with similar duties. Even here,” however, “she has a distinct feeling that something may be forfeit.” What that might be remains to be seen.
For the time being, she throws herself body and soul into the Earl’s pet project, sourcing and subsequently studying the two wolves by way of which the rewilding is to begin at the same time as attending to a few more personal dilemmas, not least her brother, the closest thing she’ll suffer to a lover, a pack of apocalyptic protestors, and the little boy she gives birth to just as the immigrant greys bear their own babes.
Coincidence? Of course not, no.
The Wolf Border is a magnificently metaphorical novel: an extended exploration of myth and motherhood—indeed the myth of motherhood—that presents its perturbed protagonist in much the same manner as the eponymous animals, the better to boldface the belief that one cannot be without the other. “They are a distant memory, a mythical thing,” and in a very real sense, Rachel recalls them:
Later, when she looks at the film footage of herself from this time, she will barely recognise the woman she has become. A strange, lumbering version, whose belly is enormous and shelf-like, defies gravity. Her hair has grown around her ears and neck, almost down to her shoulders, her face is full, soft. She walks leaning backward, her arms swinging at her sides. She is almost mythical, a creature hostage to maternity.
So though the tale of Rachel remains the same, the way it’s told can change greatly, in turn shaping what we take from it. As a character, accordingly, her development—her transformation—her own rewilding, really—is dramatic, yet never less than natural.
Equally innate are the slight speculative elements. They appear to be background, by and large, until they come to the fore in force in a revelatory last act that recasts the results of Scotland’s Independence Referendum, which in The Wolf Border is won by the same separatists who lost out last year. You must be wondering: so what? Well, just as everything about Hall’s novel makes sense eventually, so too does this deceptively inconsequential detail slip perfectly into place, like the Annerdale litter behind their leader.
Still, some will say the whole story is slow; I say it’s sumptuous. Certain critics will call the first part a false start; I’d suggest it sets up Rachel’s arc smartly. If I’m honest, Hall probably does spend a touch too long laying the table, but when the bell rings to call The Wolf Border to order, almost all of the author’s preparation pays off, because what follows is a feast of the finest fiction: a captivating and cannily crafted character-focused showcase of one of Britain’s most promising young novelists.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.