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The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall.

March 17, 2015

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall.  Harper (2015), Hardcover, 448 pages.

Favorite 5 stars

A fascinating novel about a woman reintroducing wolves to the Lake District of England at the same time she is pregnant and giving birth herself.

Rachel is a young English woman working to reintroduce wolves in Idaho when she receives an offer to head a wolf project in northern England where she grew up. After an interview visit to the wealthy landowner sponsoring the project and to her dying mother, Rachel accepts the job and returns to the region where she was a child. Her mother’s death does not resolve Rachel’s troubled relationship with her or with the brother whom she hasn’t seen in years. The actual job of reintroducing wolves is a challenging and rewarding task, especially when Rachel unexpectedly realizes she is pregnant. Slowly surrendering her own defenses, she accepts help dealing with both personal challenges and with the wolves under her care.

In this book English author Sarah Hall expertly draws together several themes. The story of the wolves themselves contributes excitement and interest to her book. As always, Hall reveals her deep love of northern England in her rich descriptions of its landscape. The man funding and initiating the wolf reconstruction, the richest and most influential man in England, gives Hall the opportunity to comment cynically about how wealth controls political decision-making in England and elsewhere.

The real core of The Wolf Border for me, however, was Rachel’s development from a loner with multiple defense mechanisms into someone able to share and to receive assistance. Pregnancy and motherhood are critical for Rachel, but not as romanticized, domestic events. Rachel is grounded in her body and experiences everything from the landscape and sexuality to motherhood as physical sensations. She struggles to find ways to care for her infant at the same time as she cares for the wolves. At times she has help from others, but at others the conflicting responsibilities impose dangers and almost overwhelm her. What Hall accomplishes is to envision a new way to look at women’s traditional identities as mothers by portraying Rachel as simultaneously a mother, a lover, and an active participant in the world of wolves and politics.

Hall is a fine writer, and in this book, she succeeds in showing us  a world different than the one we have been taught to inhabit. It is not necessarily a better world, but it is one where we can imagine life outside our usual habits. Subtle similarities between Rachel’s pregnancy and that of the wolves and between Rachel’s defenses and the defenses of the wolf enclosure help Hall hold together the disparate elements in her story.

I have read two other of Hall’s books. I loved Daughter of the North, a speculative narrative about women surviving together in a dyspeptic society, but Haweswater left me cold. The Wolf Border has reestablished Hall as an author I want to read. I strongly recommend this book to other readers, especially those interested in literary depictions of motherhood, but also all those who appreciate books that push them to think and feel in new ways.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Harper Collins for sending me this book for review.

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