Last year, I read the tough, striking, near-future dystopia The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. I was so impressed, both by her prose and by her tightly-woven ideas, that I wanted to read more by her as soon as I could.
The Wolf Border centers around zoologist Rachel Caine, who, as the book begins, is working in the United States (actually mere miles away from where I live — she comes into my town to do any big-time shopping she needs to do!) observing wolves. She is happy with her job in this remote area, partly because it seems like the right distance from her mother back in England. When she gets a request from an eccentric earl to head up his pet project to reintroduce wolves into Cumbria, therefore, she’s inclined to refuse. But things change, and Rachel returns as the earl’s project leader: part expert, part local, able to soothe the area farmers about their children and animals, and also understand what’s going on with the wild animals under her care.
This book is not really about animals, though the wolves are a constant, wild, prickly presence. The important part is the people who keep the animals, and — really — our own animality; our connection to, or division from, our own bodies, let alone our environment. Early in the book, Rachel becomes pregnant, and as she continues her work supervising the wolf pack, she is always aware of her own body’s needs: what she wants to eat, how much she needs to sleep, what position is right for sex. This centrality of the animal never becomes preachy, however, it just is. Hall’s language is straightforward and economical, and when she describes the Cumbrian countryside (as she did in The Carhullan Army) it is beautiful and terse.
The family is the unit in this book, but it is a strange sort of family, one that is shaken together by circumstance. Rachel’s mother is an odd, bitter sort of woman, a free spirit who doesn’t think much of the consequences of her behavior, and when Rachel discovers she will be a mother herself, the echoes of her childhood return. The earl’s wife died years ago in a plane crash, so the threat of dead mothers haunts the book, and the wolf mother looks on. Fathers are also a jumble: absent fathers, eccentric fathers, adopted fathers with kind, unobtrusive, healing ways. Rachel’s brother can’t father his own child, but eagerly steps into her family unit to quasi-adopt hers, and she has always mothered him: their own pack.
This is such a satisfying book. It is tense at times, and has a tremendous amount of work going on (and really, when was the last time you read about real work in fiction?), but it is also just so enjoyable to spend time with these characters. This isn’t a book in which someone is “transformed” by having a baby, or by doing a challenging work project. It avoids those common clichés. Instead, Rachel just discovers that she is more… herself; that she’s more emotionally and practically capable than she knew herself to be. Give me more of that, please and thank you.