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The Wolf Border

September 4, 2017

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall, sounded like an interesting novel about the reintroduction of grey wolves in England but ended up deflecting my interest by focusing too much on the antics of the humans and too little on the wolves.

My interest began to wane early on, as I didn’t much like getting to know the main character, Rachel, who gets pregnant by a co-worker in Idaho during a drunken evening after a party and then doesn’t tell him but runs off to England to have her baby. There’s a subplot about him having a brother hooked on meth which is relevant later because Rachel’s brother turns out to be hooked on drugs. There’s a subplot about Rachel’s new boyfriend in England, an undemanding companion with a teenage daughter. There’s a subplot about Rachel’s relationship with her mother.

When we do get to hear about the wolves, a pair Rachel has named Merle and Ra, it’s sometimes only as metaphor:
“She should tell him not to worry about what can’t be changed. The past damages, the old wounds. The trick is not to limp; one has to forget one was ever limping, like Ra, whose leg has healed. One day he could simply run again, without affliction.”
Maybe I’m just irritated because this advice has not yet worked for me; I’m still limping around on the new knee.

Rachel’s pregnancy is described in excruciating detail. Even though she’s apparently healthy, there are pages about how “her abdomen aches. Her lower vertebrae feel displaced, and there’s a grinding feeling against her ligaments. Her bladder goes into overdrive….She reads, lies on the bed surrounded by a mountain of stacked pillows, or wallows in the bath….I don’t know why human gestation evolved like this, she says. If I were out there in the wild I’d get picked off in a minute.”

In contrast, we don’t even know Merle is pregnant until she’s given birth:
“They are born, blind and deaf, in the warm, fusty alcove of soil that has been lined with their mother’s fur. A few weeks later, Gregor’s motion-sensor rig catches their first foray into the world.”

When Merle and her babies escape from their enclosure, Rachel takes her baby, Charlie, with her to search for them. At one point, when Rachel knows that a farmer has shot one of the wolf cubs, she goes walking around the hill where the cub was shot and leaves her own baby on the hillside:
“She lifts Charlie out of the papoose and puts him in a deep swale of grass, facing back down the hill towards the forest….she…approaches the wolf, glancing back at Charlie….She turns to look at Charlie again and to scan the vicinity. Only the top of his head is visible, a burr of black hair in the depression. He is secluded by the grass, like a leveret inside a form….She continues towards the animal.”
At this point, I thought Charlie was toast. Even Rachel says that “for a second she expects to see Merle appear behind him, pick him up, the straps of his dungarees clasped between her teeth, and carry him off, her abandoned, beloved son.”
It doesn’t happen, however, which is more than I felt she deserved.

By the time Rachel finally figures out that her employer has released the wolves on purpose, counting on some of them, at least, making it to Scotland where the “wolves are not only economically beneficial, but environmentally curative,” it seems like even the other characters are fed up with her, too. They let her leave England and finally she boards a plane for Idaho, where she plans to introduce the almost year-old Charlie to his father.

The wolves are last seen on the way to Scotland, Merle and Ra with the surviving “three juveniles keeping pace beautifully.” It’s enough to make you wish the pace of the novel had been swifter.

Have you ever seen a large wild animal in the wild? We see lots of deer in my back yard. When Walker was in Siberia, he said he spotted bear droppings on the trail they were building, around Lake Baikal, but no actual bears.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2017 8:07 pm

    I liked this book a lot more than you did. I think what spoke to me was the idea of having to go home again when it’s so far outside what you’ve planned. It’s something I think about a lot–how would I cope if I had to do that? But, yes, the wolves often are more metaphor than central plot point.

    • September 5, 2017 6:38 pm

      Perhaps I’m less interested in the idea of “having” to go home again because one of my adult children is at that stage and it’s so fraught. If a person who has graduated from college goes home for even a week, people start making jokes about him “living in the basement and playing video games.”

  2. September 5, 2017 4:23 pm

    Oh dear, I’ve enjoyed Sarah Hall’s writing in the past. It sounds as if this may not be her strongest novel though.

    • September 5, 2017 6:38 pm

      I don’t know–this is the first novel I’ve ever read by her.

  3. September 7, 2017 7:27 pm

    Oh! I saw a coyote once! I was in the car going past a golf course, and a coyote just ran in front of our car. We stared at it absolutely blankly, and it ran on, and then we were both like “wait was — was that a coyote?” I think that is the only wild animal I have ever seen. I might have seen a moose in my very tiny childhood, but not to remember it.

    • September 7, 2017 9:24 pm

      Wow! A coyote sighting! The only person I’ve met who’s seen a moose is a friend who grew up in Minnesota. Around here we see lots of small wild animals like groundhogs, skunks, raccoons, possums, chipmunks and squirrels.

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