The Wolf Border

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It was only a matter of time before the Scottish Independence Referendum (perhaps I should specify the 2014 referendum, so quickly does another seem to be appearing on the horizon) was used as the back-drop to a novel; more surprising is the fact that it is an English author who is first to weave it into their fiction. Sarah Hall is, of course, from Cumbria – closer to Scotland than London – and the novel’s title itself raises the question of both the purpose and validity of borders. The Wolf Border is not about the Scottish referendum – in fact, we quickly realise we are witnessing a fictional version of that event – but Hall’s determination to include it, even at risk of damaging the verisimilitude of the rest of her novel, suggests its importance. The title itself – while obviously referencing the wolves which are central to the narrative – comes from a Finnish phrase for “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country,” a clear reference to the disconnect that was one of the central issues of the referendum debate.

The novel centres on Rachel Caine, a woman who has spent her life studying wolves, but also escaping from her past. We find her initially in America about to embark on her first visit home in six years: her mother is dying, and she has been invited by Thomas Pennington, the Earl of Annerdale, to oversee a breeding programme he hopes will lead to the reintroduction of wolves into the wild. Rachel is sceptical (“People here don’t care about the countryside in any deep way…They just want nice walks, nice views and a tea room”) and initially refuses the position, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she decides to return home.

The Wolf Border is a novel of terrifying beginnings. The thought of wolves roaming the English countryside (even though they are initially fenced in on Pennington’s private land) is frightening to many of locals and meets opposition; Rachel herself faces the choice of whether to keep her baby or not, having never imagined herself as a mother (a product of her troubled relationship with her own mother):

“There are moments she feels genuinely joyful, irrationally so, and other times the decision to go ahead seems ludicrous, a madness.”

She also has the chance of relationship with the local vet, Alexander, having previously restricted herself to a series of sex-only encounters:

“She knows better than to assume, as she did for years, that men enjoy her casualness, her coolness, that it suits them better, or that they are less invested. It doesn’t take them long to sense that such an attitude stems from something else – a fear, a flaw, a stuntedness.”

Her brother, Lawrence, also faces choices of his own; and, in Scotland, the people must decide whether to become independent from the rest of the UK. All these choices offer a rush of joy; all, from a different angle, seem like madness.

Hall’s referendum, however, is fictional – we learn this early on when the First Minister of Scotland is referred to as Caleb Douglas (I couldn’t help wondering if this is a sly reference to William Godwin’s political novel Caleb Williams which begins when Williams enters the employment of a wealthy landowner). Any fear that this is an act of cowardice (i.e. so as not to offend anyone) on Hall’s part is dissipated when the result proves to be different. Rachel’s interest in this is largely focused on land reform – again an issue debated in the lead-up to the vote (for an interesting article on land ownership in Scotland see here). The newly independent Scotland also features in the novel’s denouement, which is largely optimistic:

“This place [the Scottish parliament] did not exist when she was a child, is less than twenty years old, but in that time much has changed, the fabric of British politics, state definitions. It can be done, she thinks, if people want it badly enough, if they are tired, and hopeful.”

The Wolf Border is, of course, concerned with much more than the referendum: ecology, class, motherhood are all important themes, and its characters, which I have hardly touched on, are the creation of a formidable writer. Above all, though, it seems to be about the battle between fear and hope when we are faced with change – a battle which, in Scotland at least, fear won.

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9 Responses to “The Wolf Border”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    Sounds interesting. Here in Canada the separatist issue is never far below the surface, a complex dynamic that has played itself out over and over all my adult life.

    • 1streading Says:

      I could say the same, though events seem to have accelerated recently. After a No vote in the referendum (though much closer than expected) the divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK seems to have grown.
      It will obviously be reflected in literature – as one Scottish writer pointed out recently, they would have to decide whether their character was Yes or No!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Fascinating stuff – I wasn’t aware of the origins of meaning of Wolf Border. I am interested in this as I do want to read more of Sarah Hall’s work, but I’m tempted to go back to her first novel, Haweswater. That said, this new one does sound quite ambitious…how does it compare to her short stories in The Beautiful Indifference? I love her short fiction, and fragments of the stories in that collection still cut through two years down the line.

    • 1streading Says:

      It was when I discovered the referendum background I felt I had to read her latest novel first. The wolf border definition is Hall’s – provided at the beginning of the novel.
      It’s less intense than her short stories, but I found it satisfyingly complex. I still plan to read her earlier novels.

  3. naomifrisby Says:

    Interesting review, Grant. Great to see the book reviewed by someone Scottish and so invested in the political side of it.

    • 1streading Says:

      I intentionally chose to focus on that as I felt it was one area that hadn’t been widely covered – which is not to say I didn’t appreciate the many other aspects to the novel!

      • naomifrisby Says:

        I’ve seen people say they thought it was the weakest part but I didn’t agree with that, I liked it was counterfactual and created another border in the novel.

      • 1streading Says:

        I suppose that, as her intention was to present it in the background, it could never be fully developed. But I thought it was a brave choice and, as you say, added another dimension to the novel. I did find attitude to class a little confusing – Rachel is critical of Pennington but it’s his land ownership and patrician / I know best release of the wolves that promotes radical change. (I couldn’t discuss this too much without revealing everything that happens!)

      • naomifrisby Says:

        Yes, was discussing this with Antonia Honeywell yesterday, there’s a few issues around Pennington but minor, I think, in the grand scheme of the book. Would love to discuss this further though.

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