The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

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The Wolf Border

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, wolves, eccentric, project, family

Haweswater is one of my favourite books so I was looking forward to reading this one. Sarah Hall perfectly captures the atmosphere of the Lake District and this book is no exception – the beauty of the hills and lakes shines through. Unfortunately other details of this book failed to engage me.

The Wolf Border is set in the fictional valley of Annerdale, where an eccentric Earl is plotting to reintroduce the wolf. Rachel Caine has been tracking wolves in Idaho for many years, but is lured back to the Lake District to run the project. 

My main problem with the book was that it appeared to have a feminist agenda. The male characters were all weak, invisible, or poorly rendered. I became frustrated by the lack of balance – not all men are stupid, bumbling idiots and not all women are amazing, talented individuals. There needed to be some blurring of these lines as it didn’t feel realistic.

The book also followed a fictional version of the Scottish Independence referendum. I wasn’t sure whether it was a re-imagining of last year’s referendum (in which case it made the book feel dated) or a possible future one (which didn’t feel right as there was no reference to the last one) but either way it didn’t sit well with the rest of the plot and I was unsure as to why it was included.

On a positive note, the writing was fantastic and I admired many individual passages. The wolves were well researched and the book raised interesting questions about whether they could ever be released in the UK. The problem was that the wolves didn’t have a high enough priority. Their story-line seemed to become sidetracked, just when it was getting interesting. The book tried to deal with too many different issues and I think it would have benefited from focusing on the natural world instead of Rachel and her frustrating family.

He takes a fleece hat out of the rucksack and she puts it on. They continue upward, into the cold, fast-moving currents. The effort is double, with the wind hoving against them. The latter part of the route is incredibly difficult, almost beyond her limit. Rachel’s legs shake; the undersides of her toes burn. The dense sedge grass vibrates all around and blurs her vision. There are no birds, just the occasional ravaged-looking sheep, bleating uselessly in the wind. They push on over the false brow.

Overall The Wolf Border was too fragmented. There were many wonderful sections, but the plot failed to come together as a whole. Go and get a copy of Haweswater instead.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 I’ll be on my soapbox if it isn’t on the Man Booker Prize longlist in the summer. The Writes of Woman

Good start but disappointing in the latter sections, perhaps even preposterous. Alan on Good Reads

 Extraordinary writing and clever storytelling make this undoubtedly a novel that will appear on my best of the year list. Shiny New Books





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  1. I have been intrigued by this one and intend to give it a try, so I wish you had enjoyed it more. I still think it sounds pretty interesting even if it’s not wholly successful in the end… I will read it, but I guess I don’t have to make it a top priority any more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, Yes, there are a lot of interesting sections. It would actually make a good book group choice as all the little bits can be discussed. Shame it just doesn’t flow very well. :-(

  2. David says:

    I finished this a couple of days ago and have been letting it settle before commenting. For me it wasn’t quite as good as ‘Haweswater’ (though I think Hall has come quite a way as a writer since then – there was a self-conscious lyricism to her prose in her first two books that has given way to a tougher – yet no less poetic – voice) but was much better than ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’ and ‘The Carhullan Army’. I’d put this one on a par with ‘The Electric Michelangelo’ and some of the pieces in ‘The Beautiful Indifference’.

    I was interested by your comment about the feminist agenda, Jackie – I think there is an element of that in Hall’s writing, especially in the way she writes about sex, but I didn’t find the aggressive kind of feminism here that you’re speaking of. I do know exactly what you mean and it is the main problem I have with Anne Enright’s work and some of Margaret Atwood. Perhaps the most extreme example I’ve read recently would be Melissa Lucashenko’s ‘Mullumbimby’ in which all the women are well-developed strong-willed characters and the men are one-dimensional and either mean, dense, or both.

    Anyway, I enjoyed ‘The Wolf Border’ and really liked the ways she explored that idea of a boundary between wilderness and civilisation and how those borders are often largely theoretical or abstract; permeable even when they seem concrete (like a twelve foot high fence). I thought the Scottish Referendum was a good way of expanding on that – a border on a map that doesn’t really exist but ends up having great significance for the wolves. I did wonder if Hall had been hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote in the interests of her book, though if there had been that would probably have made it even more dated as the political situation may not have developed the way it does in the novel – that the novel exists in a reality parallel to our own probably turns out to be a good thing as it allows her latitude with her plot.
    Having said that I did think there were too many takes on the border metaphor fighting for attention – sometimes I felt like she was trying to engineer that aspect into every aspect of the plot (the pregnancy, Lawrence’s marriage, Michael’s wife’s illness, the question of whether to tell Kyle about Charlie…etc etc) so that I did start to lose sight of the point she was trying to make. It lacked the concision, for instance, of the way Cormac McCarthy uses the idea of borders in his Border Trilogy where it’s really clear what he’s driving at.
    But in terms of plot and character I felt the book succeeded. She also, without very much description and with a complete lack of sentimentality, made me care so much about the wolves that I was totally involved in their journey, which is quite a skilful thing to do.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, It’s interesting to hear your thoughts! Your right that it wasn’t an aggressive feminism. It was much more subtle than that and so may be why it annoyed me so much. It might be easy to miss, but once I spotted it I became annoyed every time I noticed it.

      I like your point about the borders in this book. I hadn’t noticed the sheer number, but you’re right! Much of the plot felt as though it was forced in there to make some sort of point and that may be why it didn’t flow as a whole. There was just too much going on.

      She did make me care about the wolves though. I wish the book had concentrated on them more. It would have been more effective with the other elements stripped away, leaving just the wolves and their beautiful Lakeland surroundings.

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