Thursday 16 April 2015

The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall

I don’t get the chance to discuss books with others often but The Wolf Border made me regret that a little. I think I’d like to be reassured or set straight. It’s such a beautiful novel and I loved it but I have a few doubts. Reading Hall is as effortless as reading someone like Kate Atkinson – but with a poeticism that is sensuous, intoxicating and exciting. The text manages to evoke the wonder and complexity of the world with an unusual clarity and grit.
The Wolf Border Sarah Hall

After three months of reading speculative fiction it was a weird kind of shock to return to ‘realism’, character, psychology and a heady pleasure to get caught up in Hall’s lyrical prose. The novel begins with Rachel in the USA, head of a project that studies wolves in Chief Joseph reservation, Idaho. She is distanced from her family in England, six years since her last visit. Her childhood was difficult but Rachel has found a way of living – comfort in the knowledge and theory of science, a successful career, lonely disengagement and superficial companionability with others. More than anything her deep understanding and imaginative connection with the wolves and the landscape give her life meaning.

Her return to England allows the reader to meet her dying mother Binny, access Rachel’s hard, forensic gaze whilst glimpsing her protective shell and a partial hollowness inside; the self destructive tendencies too – that dangerous, uncertain border between protecting yourself and shutting yourself down too keenly.

The novel charts her return to England, her pregnancy and the first year of motherhood, her reengagement with her brother Lawrence, her changing understanding of the world and the new story she begins to tell about herself. The text asks us to compare Rachel’s deep knowledge of the wolves and their otherness with the way she essentialises and categorizes humans.

I found the first half more satisfying than the second half – don’t get me wrong, I’ve already bought copies for friends and the second half is pretty great too. It’s a joy to discover you’re in the company of such a clever, skilful writer.  The writing about the wolves and the landscape is often dreamily good. The slightly alternate, slightly future UK with an independent Scotland is well realised and I found the political elements satisfying.

My dissatisfaction rests on inter-related paradoxes I think. First, part of me wanted some rougher edges – the novel felt almost too perfectly realised; too accomplished. Maybe that sounds a bit mad but I’d rather have more questions than answers these days. Secondly, for all that I wanted Rachel to grow as a human being and for all that I enjoyed her journey of becoming, I wondered if the text wanted me to question whether Rachel had lost something too. Does the text want us to wonder if Rachel has been tamed as well as made more whole? I’m not sure it does and therefore I can’t help but ask if the text becomes a little too cosy and idealised?
It requires a second reading of course and in my breathless race to read various shortlists that will have to wait. It will still, easily, be amongst the novels of the year. I already love Hall's short stories - now I'm going to go back and read all the novels.

Quite a few of the press reviews are a little lacking in imagination and analysis. The best are Niall Alexander’s effusive review here and Alex Clark in the Guardian here.