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The Wolf Border

Andrew Tate

The Wolf Border

Sarah Hall

Faber and Faber, 448pp

The conventional wisdom - popularized in the title of a much cited but rarely read Thomas Wolfe novel - is that 'you can't go home again'. Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border is a contemporary narrative that tests this melancholy maxim and explores both the appeal and complications of belonging. Rachel Caine, an English zoologist based in the vast wilderness of Nez Perce in Idaho, has resisted her roots for a decade - family is a fragmented but not quite forgotten phenomenon thousands of miles away. Her life is guided by meticulous attention to work and, specifically, to protecting the wolves, the 'god of all dogs' that run free across the Chief Joseph Reservation; she is in awe of these 'matchless predators', indifferent to human existence and which 'exist supremely' but has no time either for the emotional attachments of love-struck co-workers or conformist notions of domesticity. Yet Rachel cannot resist an invitation to the UK, specifically to the northern Lake District - a landscape that still haunts her dream life - and the mixed blessing of visiting her mother, a once wayward and '[s] elf-declared red-blooded sensualist' now on the brink of death. The trip is bankrolled by the deep pockets of Thomas Pennington, the idiosyncratic Earl of Annerdale, a man who claims to have 'an exciting vision' (always cause for alarm) with plans to partially re-wild his vast estate by re-introducing the grey wolf, hunted out of existence in the British Isles for hundreds of years. So begins a sort of homecoming, part flight from the bruising realities of adult life, part adventure in a world that Rachel both resents and for which, privately, she yearns. Hall's evocative title is a literal translation of susiraja, a Finnish word for the 'boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country', a name that 'suggests everything outside the border is wilderness'. The terrain of Hall's fifth novel is characteristically non-Metropolitan; the Reservation in Idaho is far removed from American (sub)urban existence and, once the narrative crosses the Atlantic via long haul flight, excursions to Lancaster, Kendal and Carlisle count as big city sojourns. Hall was born in Cumbria in 1974 - the year that the current county boundaries were drawn - and as with her debut, Haweswater (2002) and The Carhullan Army (2007), the beguiling geography of the region's lakes and mountains frame her storytelling. William Wordsworth, the Lake District's most celebrated and parodied poet, is famous for celebrating the transformative joy of the fells and its flowers but he also wrote of failure, loss and the 'bliss of solitude'. The Wolf Border echoes this strand of northern Romanticism: it strikes a melancholy note, one that is critical of human arrogance amidst an enduring, frequently exploited world, and it is both tender and scrupulously tough about human folly. Releasing a vanished species into a sort of wilderness - one that is bequeathed via an accident of birth and sequestered both by inherited wealth and an enormous fence - is a bold act and one that inspires dissent. For some, the wolves are a threat, for others they are a reminder of the vitality of nature. The novel resists anthropomorphism but it is hard not to read the waking wolves struggle for existence in their alfresco jail - verdant and stunning but still prison - as figurative of wider concerns regarding freedom and kinship. Rachel's fierce commitment to the animals is indicative of her capacity for patient stewardship. Rachel is a skeptical prodigal, in more ways than one: it is not only her 'riven' family that she looks at differently but also the land itself. Pennington's project might be ecologically noble - or quixotic - but it is also a symbol of a still feudal land, 'a country peculiarly owned'. The Earl is a 'man who owns all that she can see, almost to the summits, perhaps the summits'. The landowner is also sentimentally convinced that 'nature is in the British soul' whereas Rachel suspects that people are no longer truly committed to the countryside: 'They just want nice walks, nice views and a tearoom'. Is this an allegation that suspicious readers might make about twenty- first-century novels set in the lush beauty of the Lakes? Fiction that dares to represent rural life risks twin accusations of literary nostalgia and escapist conservatism. Hall's novel, however, is charged with the specifics of contemporary political debate: class, embodied in the hegemony gifted to Pennington and his family, has not evaporated from the old country; another contested boundary is that between England and its northern neighbour and Rachel's return to the Lakes coincides with a referendum on independence for Scotland. It is no major spoiler to say that things work out slightly differently than in the equivalent 'real' world (if that is where we live) election. For me, the novel's account of big picture debates about national identity is less convincing than its nuanced exploration of the particular ethical challenges of family, motherhood and friendship. The gradual restoration of Rachel's relationship with her brother and their shared desire to find forgiveness and restoration are limned with greater credibility than those parts of the novel that endeavour to address the uncertain state of the nation. This family story is not a retreat from politics: it represents the hard work of being human. 'We need the tonic of wildness,' claimed Thoreau, a century and a half ago. The Wolf Border acknowledges that most of experience of 'wildness' is subject to human intervention but it is also full of sensuous exhilaration that life itself will exceed the boundaries that we create; that which has breath will rarely be contained by fences, no matter how high they are built.