Monday 24 April 2017

Deceptive simplicity: a tale of wolves and women

The Wolf Border; Sarah Hall; Faber & Faber, €19.55

Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall
Book cover

Emily Hourican

'Wolf border" comes from a Finnish word, meaning the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country, and carries with it the suggestion that everything beyond that border is savage country. This is the country the much-lauded novelist Sarah Hall writes about in her latest book, layering short, neat sentences one over another, to build a close and detailed view of the landscapes she describes - whether the rugged terrain of Idaho or the mountains and moors of the Cumbrian Lake District - and the slow, often reluctant emotional engagements of her characters.

Rachel Caine is 30-something, living on a Reservation in Idaho where she works with grey wolves; "matchless predators, they exist supremely, she is irrelevant to them." And that possibly is part of the attraction. Because Rachel is laconically distant from her small, dysfunctional family. Not so much estranged as quietly removed.

There are just the three of them: Rachel, her mother Binny, a woman who lived her life with such dedication to the idea of freedom, that any other role - including that of mother - came second, so that Rachel muses that "in some ways they were motherless, daughterless." And Lawrence, a half-brother, much younger, whose childhood is spent in company with a shifting population of men - Binny's lovers, often other women's husbands - so that Rachel is the rock he tries to cling to. Except that she wouldn't allow him, and so instead he walks away, becomes a solicitor and marries a controlling woman.

Binny's death coincides with a strange job offer from the Earl of Annerdale, one of the last remaining big hereditary landowners in the country, and the type of eccentric aristocrat the English do so well. The Earl wishes to reintroduce grey wolves to England, and constructs a vast enclosure on his estate.

Rachel arrives to oversee the project, drawn by the desire to witness the reintroduction of a predator that has been extinct since the time of Henry VII, as well, perhaps, as the freedom conferred by Binny's death.

From a carefully controlled existence, where she is able to keep emotions at bay - relationships are held at arm's length, sex is with strangers, or without strings - Rachel returns to the countryside of her youth, unexpectedly pregnant, and, as the wolf project slowly unfolds, finds herself forging friendships, family relationships, a love affair. It is the unexpected awakening of a woman who had carefully removed herself from the pit of human interaction.

The wolves themselves are carefully integrated into the story, far too close to be incidental, but never anthropomorphised. Instead, their fundamental separateness is maintained.

The second half of the book changes pace, as the project, and Rachel's life, picks up speed. There are pages on the intense incompatibilities of working life and small babies, the loneliness of late-night screaming sessions and exhausted, grey mornings. And into the new terrain that Rachel is forging, for herself and the wolf family under her protection, comes something else, unexpected family demands, a domestic mystery, running alongside a broader one.

The Earl's family, too, have secrets, she realises. His perfectly beautiful daughter and wayward son, the mother who died when they were still young. Meanwhile, it becomes gradually apparent that, despite the minute and detailed descriptions of place, the story is actually unfolding in an alternate reality - Scotland has voted yes to independence. This piece of information, at first no more than a grey shadow stealing wolf-like across the edges of the narrative, becomes of primary importance as the novel enters its final phase.

In fact though, this is not narrative driven by plot -something that unfolds slowly, undulating gently with the landscape and seasons. It is the writing, assured and steady, that takes the story forward, creating step by step a complete picture of Rachel's life. Hall amasses the detail, building up layers - the weather described in intimate, immediate ways, a full year's revolution, through sultry summer to bitter winter - choosing unusual, highly-specific words: her brother's looks are "cachexic", the Earl has the "encomium of an agent", to create a deceptively simple, deeply-layered tale.

The Wolf Border is Hall's fifth novel. Her second, The Electric Michelangelo, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and the fourth, How To Paint A Dead Man, long-listed. She has won a rake of awards, and is only now in her 40s; a very serious novelist hitting her stride.

 

Sunday Independent

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