The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

She would like to believe Thomas, to think that the country as a whole will one day re-wild, whatever its new manmade divisions created at the ballot box. She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border.

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation. As the novel begins she’s about to make her first visit to England in six years:

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.

She attempts to visit the rich man first – Thomas Pennington, Earl of Annerdale – but, after arriving late due to a delayed flight, is forced to return the following day. Then, Pennington takes Rachel on a tour of his estate to show her the enclosure barrier, the one in which he intends to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to Britain.

Above the moorland and trees, the Lakeland mountains castle. Above the crags, sky, occluded clouds. As a child, the territory seemed so wild that anything might be possible. The moors were endless, haunting; they hid everything and gave up secrets only intermittently – an orchid fluting in a bog, a flash of blue wing, some phantom, long-boned creature, caught for a moment against the horizon before disappearing. Only the ubiquitous sheep tamed the landscape. She did not know it then, but in reality, it was a kempt place, cultivated, even the high grasslands covering the fells was manmade. Though it formed her notions of beauty, true wilderness lay elsewhere.

Pennington wants Rachel to manage the enclosure but she sees the wolves living in captivity as a step backwards from her work on the Idaho reservation and declines. She returns to America, telling her colleague, Kyle:

It’s a good scheme. But a mad hope and glory project – he wants to re-wild, eventually…Britain has a history of wealthy eccentrics who love grand schemes, especially if they can be named after themselves. They think they can do whatever they want. Maybe they can – a few handshakes with old-school friends in Parliament and off they go. It’s not like here.

But, following a drunken one-night stand with Kyle at their New Year’s Eve party, she realises she’s pregnant and accepts Pennington’s offer.

The novel then follows her through the reintroduction of a pair of Grey Wolves; her decision over the baby, and her relationship with her brother, all played out during the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.

The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. Hall explores how these borders change people:

She doesn’t want a baby. She has never wanted a baby. A baby would be ridiculous. But how can she describe the feeling? The strange interest in it all, now that the situation pertains to her specifically. The mercurial days: fatal mornings when she is sure she wants rid of it, nights when the certainty evaporates and she imagines. It’s as if some rhythm – circadian, immune, hormonal, she does not know what exactly – waxes and wanes and, with it, her rational mind.

There’s so much about this book that’s impressive; Hall’s writing is obviously the key to it all, her sentences are precise and rhythmic, not a word out of place, not a slip in the voice. Her descriptions of the landscape of the Lake District and the wolves are breathtaking. Her characterisation – particularly of Rachel – is superb. It’s pleasing to see a woman protagonist, in her thirties, career-driven in an area rarely explored in literature, no desire for a relationship, self-sufficient, a risk-taker, portrayed without moral judgement.

It baffles me that The Wolf Border wasn’t shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize and I’ll be on my soapbox if it isn’t on the Man Booker Prize longlist in the summer. Hall is one of the UK’s best writers and this is her most fully realised work. I hope that the current interest in nature writing and realistic female protagonists mean that this novel gets the recognition it deserves.

27 thoughts on “The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

  1. This does sound very good, Naomi. I loved Hall’s short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference. Her prose is beautiful – you can see it here, particularly in the third quote. I’m tempted to add this to the list once it appears in paperback.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I chose that quotation purely for her use of language. I honestly believe she’s one of our best writers and while her short stories have been acknowledged with the highest prizes, her novels haven’t. I’m not really sure what she has to do…


  2. O dear I’m afraid I don’t share your love of Sarah Hall … be fair the only one I’ve read is The Culloden Army which I didn’t like at all. It is yonks since I read it and don’t remember much apart from it was dystopian , I think . Hearing lots of praise for this one so will prob give it a go once the Baileython is over !


  3. Good review. I’m keen to read the book now. Also, I note your point: “It’s pleasing to see a woman protagonist, in her thirties, career-driven in an area rarely explored in literature, no desire for a relationship, self-sufficient, a risk-taker, portrayed without moral judgement.” I’ve been racking my brains to think of other examples and can only come up with Miranda in Emily St John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’. Ideally, I’d like a list! The trickiest aspect to find is ‘portrayed without moral judgement.’


  4. I’m reading this now (about one-fifth of the way through) and loving it. It reminds me a lot of one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2015, The Animals by Christian Kiefer, which shares the setting of a wildlife refuge in Idaho. I’ve only skimmed your review so none of the plot gets spoiled for me, but I’ll pop back and comment once I’ve read it in full. Previously I had only read a collection of Hall’s stories and hadn’t been hugely impressed, but this novel is top-class stuff.


  5. YAY for this review and Sarah Hall and all the things we’ve talked about regarding her. JacquiWine’s comment about her language made me take a closer look at that third paragraph, and I realized that the cadences reminded me both of a Shakespeare monologue and of song. They lilt. “an orchid fluting in a bog, a flash of blue wing, some phantom, long-boned creature”–Britten might have set it to music.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just read this book recently and loved it as much as you. And yes, we need more woman protagonist like Rachel, especially as women are becoming more oriented to careers. Yet part of story is her learning to accept closeness with others while retaining her self-reliance. I was fascinated by the depiction of her as both a wolf manager and a new mother.

    But I haven’t liked all of Sarah Hall’s novels. I found her Haweswater to be somewhat empty and unconvincing at its core although her descriptions of the landscape in it were great.


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