I didn’t realize how much I cared about the characters in Sarah Hall’s latest novel until I got to a major plot point near the end of my lunch break a few days ago. That afternoon at work was long. And the last 100 pages of the book were so intense that when I finished it that evening, I had to get up and walk away from the book a few times because I was so worried about how things were going.
The Wolf Border focuses on zoologist Rachel Caine, originally from Cumbria and now living in Idaho observing wolves. Her relationship with her mother back in England is difficult, and visits home are unpleasant. So she’s not much tempted when a wealthy earl offers her the chance to help reintroduce grey wolves to Cumbria. It’s a controversial program, as people are worried about their children and livestock, and having a well-known expert who’s also a local could help. Rachel is uncomfortable with the idea of working for the gentry, and she has no desire to move back home. But an unexpected series of events cause Rachel to change her mind—and her life.
A lot of this book concerns itself with how people make decisions about their lives. What unconscious, instinctual forces are behind the things we do? As Rachel watches wolves raised in captivity learn to live on their own, she is learning to do things she never thought possible. She always saw herself as a sort of wild thing, following uncomfortably in her mother’s independent footsteps, but when her circumstances change, she changes with them. She’s able to do things and be things that she never imagined. And she’s perplexed by it, sometimes resistant, but something inside her keeps her following this different path.
Hall is in dangerous territory here for me. It would be all too easy for a story like this turn into some sort of Hallmark movie in which the independent woman moves home and discovers true joy in domesticity. But Hall does not do that. Rachel is still in essence the same woman. In fact, her spirit of adventure and willingness to take risks is part of the reason I had my heart in my throat for so much of the final chapters of the book. The changes that happen to Rachel don’t turn her into something different, they just add new layers to the person she already is. It made me think of a recent post by Swistle about how we sometimes have options available to us that we simply can’t see. They might be terrible, ridiculous options we’d never take, but they exist. Personally, I found it especially pleasing to see these kinds of major life shifts happening in a story of a woman in her 40s. I think it’s easy in middle age to feel stuck in who we are and where we are. Watching Rachel grow in the way that she does, while remaining who she is, was heartening.
This is the second novel that I’ve read by Sarah Hall. I really liked her short story collection The Beautiful Indifference but was less impressed by How to Paint a Dead Man, which is technically a novel but read more like linked stories blended together. I really enjoyed this novel and hope to get around to her earlier novels, especially The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North one of these days.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.