Sarah Hall’s fifth novel, The Wolf Border, is set chiefly in Cumbria, the northwest county of England bordering Scotland, on the immense estate of Thomas Pennington, eleventh (fictional) Earl of Annerdale. The peer, an incalculably wealthy Tory whose political weight gives him near-despotic powers, has made it his mission to reintroduce wolves to an England free of them for almost 500 years. The story is told from the point of view of Rachel Caine, a zoologist in her late thirties, a native Cumbrian who had roamed the Annerdale demesne as a child. She has been working on a wolf project in Utah, but an unplanned pregnancy, the result of a moment of drunken heedlessness with a previously platonic friend, somehow convinces her to abandon America and accept Pennington’s offer to take charge of his pet project.
Rachel, it should be said, doesn’t quite know what to do about her condition. Her mother, who neglected both her and her half brother, Lawrence, was destructively promiscuous and not at all a nice person — on meeting her briefly, we are bound to agree. Formed by this upbringing, Rachel doesn’t think she has what it takes to be a good mother. In fact, she has problems with families in general, being alienated from Lawrence as well as his wife. She contemplates abortion but dithers about, and is soon attending a prenatal clinic.
Rachel’s job involves overseeing the wellbeing of the wolves imported from Romania: Ra, a silvery male, and Merle, a darker female. After a period of quarantine in a secure, confined area, the wolves will be released to a large preserve surrounded by miles and miles of unscalable, industrial-strength fencing. It is hoped that they will breed and that the population of deer that roam the vast tract of moor and woodland will support a small wolf pack. The very idea of wolves from Romania (of all places) moving into the neighborhood has unloosed the collective imagination and brought protests; even Pennington’s gamekeeper and loyal retainer, Michael Stott, takes a dim view of the project – and of Rachel, for that matter: Now his “beloved deer, previously targets for the noble shotgun, are to become glorified dog food.” Rachel’s duties include trying to reassure everyone, including terrified mothers and angry farmers, that the animals will pose no danger.
As the wolves settle in, people calm down; Rachel gestates, makes peace with her brother, is surprised to find a reliable helper in Sylvia, the earl’s beautiful, polished daughter, and enters an affair with a burly veterinarian. She has her baby. It’s all good. In the world outside, a referendum calling for Scottish independence is held and is successful (though, outside the novel, a similar referendum was defeated last year). The wolves breed, Merle gives birth to a litter of four, and the animals’ popularity grows: “These are the first wolf pups born in the wild for centuries, the significance is not lost on the nation. They become almost like mascots, for what exactly no one is sure, a beleaguered England, an England no longer associated with Scotland’s great natural resources. The project has pluck, and scope.”
Another happy outcome. In fact, problem after problem arises in this novel only to dissolve quietly, effortlessly – to deflating effect. Anti-wolf protests, Rachel’s pregnancy and complications in the baby’s delivery, Stott’s hostile attitude, doubts about Sylvia, trouble with Lawrence, a ferocious winter that leaves Rachel isolated with her baby – one by one they simply go away. The tension just ceases. What never lets up, however, once it gets started, is what Anthony Trollope called “baby worship.” Rachel is smitten with her child and leaves no facet of its accomplishments and botherations undescribed – its smiles and chortles, its mewling and puking and soiled breechclouts. The result is that by the time she puts the hallowed infant down in a field while wolves are at large, some readers may hope for the worst.
Fortunately, the novel has a greater, overarching concern, and that is with the relationship between civilization and wildness, and with the nature of Pennington’s ambition: He is, as Rachel observes, “a moral hedonist.” There is an irreconcilable contradiction in the artificial creation and fostering of untamed nature – in beasts, in the landscape. When she had visited the far-flung Pennington estate as a child, the land had seemed entirely wild:
"She did not know it then, but in reality it was a kempt place, cultivated, even the high grassland over the fells was manmade. Though it formed her notions of beauty, true wilderness lay elsewhere. Strange to be sitting next to the man who owns all that she can see, almost to the summits, perhaps the summits. It is his, by some ancient decree, an accident of birth and entitlement – the new forestation, the unfarmed tracts and salt marshes towards the edge of the Irish Sea. She could applaud the project without reserve, were it not for the hegemony, the unsettling feeling of imbalance. Still, it is England; a country particularly owned."
This is a problematical reality, a conundrum with no real resolution, and Hall pays it out excellently, bringing an unexpected, pleasing plot twist to bear on it in the end. Further, her writing on nature belongs to the great English tradition, an emotional response to landscape free of American Transcendental portentousness, but intimate and dwelt-in. Finally, her descriptions of the wolves are exhilarating. Here, in conclusion, is Merle, sprinting ahead, as the pair are released from quarantine into the great wolf preserve:
"Soon she is at full tilt, flooding across the moorland. Within moments there is a large white wolf alongside her. The pair veer away from the gorse-covered hillside, divide and make for the nearest cover – a gathering of thorn woods on the hill, spindled and bent by the wind.... They cover the open moor in less than a minute. One dark, one light, stellar and obverse, their hind muscles working sumptuously under their coats. The months of docile quarantine are shaken off in seconds; power always lay just underneath.... They climb the gradient of the hill opposite without slowing, then disappear from sight in the broken terrain."
That’s a little more like it: a salutary, bracing antidote to that tiresome baby.