It’s an old term, ‘wolf border’, from the Finnish language: susiraja.

The boundary betweent the capital region and the rest of the country: everything which lies beyond the border is wilderness.

Wolf Border Sarah Hall

HarperCollins, 2015

Certainly Rachel does have to explain a lot about her scientific work with wolves beyond the border.

And it’s not only Londoners who go about their lives without a thought to wilderness, to the world beyond their experience.

 “How to explain to those unused to rural issues, to Londoners surprised by the fast trains north and the relative proximity of the Lake District to the Great Wen, surprised, it seems, that anything outside their own experience exists?”

But even though Rachel has a relationship with the land beyond the capital region’s borders…

Even though she has spent several years studying the movements of another species, a quintesentially wild one at that…

Even though she has lived independently of her family for all of those years…

Rachel, too, has begun to define the world by her own experiences, more expansive than some people’s but less than others’.

Having worked in Idaho for many years, she is invited to return to England, where the Earl of Annerdale seeks to reintroduce wolves to the countryside. It is an offer she plans to refuse, but one which is too tempting to ignore outright.

“The moors were endless, haunting; they had everything and gave upsecrets 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 countryside.”

The concept of re-wilding is fascinating on its own. (The author acknowledges the value of specific works on the subject in her notes at the back of the novel, if readers would like to explore independently.)

But Sarah Hall lays parallels for the reader, so that the layered themes — ideas of stewardship and dependence, taming and observing, protection and isolation — are particularly striking.

This novel is not titled for the content about wolves, but for the border between one state identified as civilized and another state identified as wild.

Both definitions are conceived of by humans.  There is some observation of the wolves, of course, but always through the lens of the human gaze, of a world dominated by humans as the ultimate predator.

Rachel is intrigued by the Earl of Annerdale’s plans to bring wolves from Eastern Europe, but troubled by the “hegemony, the unsettling feeling of imbalance”.

Given her investment in her work in America, returning to England is not a decision to take lightly. And questions about independence — pertaining not only to the wolves but also the countryside and her personal familial connections — are paramount. (The relationship with her mother is key, but her relationship with her brother Lawrence also introduces matters of dependency and caregiving, responsibility and resilience.)

“Still, it is England; a country particularly owned.” Indeed, England is a country traditionally preoccupied with owning or claiming the lands and territories of others. In The Wolf Border, the Scottish people are debating the merits of independence from the mother-land.

Rachel is well acquainted with the conservative take on the matter. There would be chaos across the border, given the impoverished state of Scotland, indebted and in need of European bailout: the independence scare story.

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“They are matchless predators, they exist supremely, she is irrelevant to them.”

She actually makes this statement regarding the wolves, but such observations could also be made of the political situation as well, so skillfully does the author align developments. Similar questions surrounding family relationships surface too.

“She had the only version of her mother she could have had; Binny had the only daughter. In some waya they were motherless, daughterless.”

The biological ties are undeniable, and Rachel is a scientist; she assesses, evaluates and responds more analytically than many people. Yet, she seeks and embraces the wilderness, and she struggles with her awareness that it exists both within and without.

And even though her experiences allow her to explain some things about the natural world to city-dwellers, there are many areas of life (literal and metaphorical) which she has not yet experienced.

Rachel’s borders are shifting, expanding. And that makes for a solid character-driven tale. (Readers are completely immersed in her perspective; even the dialogue is presented all-of-a-piece with the story. There are no borders here either: a thought in the mind may or may not be spoken, but exists in Rachel’s consciousness whether or not it is shared.)

For with the prospect of a new job on the horizon, she learns that she is pregnant, the result of an unplanned intimacy with a long-time co-worker on the wolf reservation in the United States.

In some ways, this development is not as immediately challenging as it might be, for Rachel’s independence co-exists with a solid set of care-giving skills, which many first-time parents inherently lack.

“In the storm of it all, she does not consider that for years they have been together, companions, lovers of sorts, mutually obsessed with the family under their care – with their feeding, their nurture, their scat, the routes along which they travel – as if partners already.”

But motherhood as a social structure is something with which Rachel has no experience.

“Most uncomfortable is the awareness that she is to some degree following in Binny’s footsteps: unmarried, independent, not at all leavened by maternity.”

Again the author’s skill with presenting parallels in the storyline is evident. Just as Rachel can manage the scientific elements of care-giving for the wolves, it is theoretically possible that she could follow a series of steps to maintain the health of an infant in her care.

“The implants have proved negligible. They have been vaccinated. They are acclimated to the terrain, its hard carapaces and grasslands, via the microcosm of their acre. All that remains is for their human aversion to prevail.”

But the idea of mothering is something else. Just as the scientists can observe a pair of wolves, they cannot force them to mate and raise a family together. Rachel’s decision will change the shape of her world.

“For the first time in her life, work is not the primary concern: work is not in full possession of her soul…. She cannot hide in it. All those years in which she was safe and exempt, focused on the management of another species. Now, a different sphere has ascended. The qualities of human reward and failure rest with her. It is terrifying.”

As complicated as it was to erect a barrier to protect the rewilded wolves in England, constructed barriers are not necessarily effective. Barriers break down when not all inhabitants of the world agree that their construction is a priority.

This is the kind of dilemma with which Rachel grapples in The Wolf Border: the ascendance of a different sphere.

A sophisticated and engaging novel: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the invitation to participate.

Other readers’ opinions and responses can be found here:

From the TBR PileBookNAroundBook DilettanteReading to DistractionWildmooBooksConceptual ReceptionRaven Haired GirlA Bookish Way of LifeSharon’s Garden of Book ReviewsBook Reviews by Lanise BrownLavish BookshelfBroken TeepeeKritters Ramblings

You can find out more about Sarah Hall at her website, and you can connect with her on Facebook.