Archive for June 17th, 2015

June 17, 2015

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

From a recent column, and also a very loosely sketched outline of several things I’ve been thinking about recently. Also relevant, possibly: Adam Roberts on the “strange pastoral” of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach books, and pretty much anything that contains the word “anthropocene”. I’ve decided, basically, that The Wolf Border is absolutely a book about climate change.

There’s a Lionel Shriver review of The Wolf Border, here,  in which she is a bit unimpressed at Hall’s choice to have Rachel keep the baby she isn’t sure she wants. And I absolutely get that in the context of women’s ongoing struggle for reproductive rights we could all do with seeing more fictional abortions. But then that choice against certainty, against decisive action (or decisive feeling) is fundamental to my reading of this book. I don’t know how I can advocate for the continued assertion of women’s rights to our bodies and control over our reproductive selves and also the necessity of fiction that imagines women (and men, and everyone) not in control of our bodies and surroundings (in ways different from the ways in which we already socially lack that control), or choosing to give up the sorts of control we do have and here we are anyway.



badgerOne of my favourite facts about Britain is that its largest remaining native carnivore is the badger. This is not to disparage badgers or their abilities (a simple internet search will lead to several stories of badger aggression*) but it’s hard to imagine them as a threat—the lasting image for me, at least, is of the fussy character in a dressing gown in The Wind in the Willows. It would probably be unfair to blame Kenneth Grahame entirely for the domestication of the British landscape, in imagination or reality, but he does rather leave one with an impression of it as populated by the animal world’s equivalent of elderly men in slippers.

More intimidating predators are still a possibility, through multiple rewilding projects taking place across Europe. Already there are plans to reintroduce lynxes, as well as wolves, though within protected territories.

It’s with the rewilding of wolves that Sarah Hall’s most recent novel, The Wolf Border, is concerned. Its protagonist, Rachel Caine, has been working on a reservation in Idaho for years, but returns to her native Cumbria to participate in a project to reintroduce the grey wolf to a private estate, in the face of local opposition to the project. The estate in question belongs to the Earl of Annerdale (the name echoes the rewilding projects in Ennerdale in England and Alladale in Scotland), whom Rachel immediately dislikes. She is shown to have good reason—the project is tied up in larger political concerns and the Earl’s interest is (predictably) hardly altruistic. Yet he, and the world he represents, fade into the background for most of the book, which is in the main about Rachel herself; her family, her pregnancy, her relationship with this landscape that is familiar from her childhood and that she has not seen for years.

Set in a world where last year’s Scottish referendum resulted in a victory for the “yes” side, The Wolf Border is also speculative fiction of a sort. The political and ecological differences between this world and our own are not particularly big ones; if Annerdale isn’t quite where the book says it is this is a divergence from reality no greater than most realist fiction, and if the Scottish referendum didn’t go as the book says it did, for (presumably) most of the book’s genesis it was still possible. Yet there’s something else The Wolf Border is doing, something that to me feels inherently speculative.Wolf Border

At one point in the book, Rachel invokes the Chernobyl disaster, which had occurred when she was ten years old.

“They told us not to go outside if it was raining. Where I come from, it’s always raining. We had exercises in school for nuclear disasters afterwards. This bell would ring and you’d have to duck under the desk and count to one hundred. […] They’ve only just stopped testing the lambs before sending them to the market.”

Her companion recalls being in school when Mount St Helens erupted and he and his brother “[stayed] under the bed for three days […] There was black shit on everything.” Whether it’s the ravages that humans have wrought on the world, or nature itself, the “dark old republic” whose past and future Rachel imagines, we have never truly been safe.

So much of The Wolf Border is about discomfort, about plunging into discomfort even when one doesn’t have to. Rachel’s pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent but which she chooses not to terminate. Landscape and bodies and borders are mutable; and the sheer physicality of Hall’s prose insists that we engage with them as such.

And if I, however unfairly, blame the domestication of the British landscape on Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals, part of the work of rewilding it must also belong to literature. It is becoming harder to pretend that we’re safe in the world, that hiding under desks or beds will shield us. We must live unsafe in the world and one of literature’s tasks for the near future must be the speculative work of imagining ourselves no longer at ease.



*A good place to do this is in a university library where the person working at the next computer can look over and see you googling “badger attack” and lose all respect for you forever.