Book of the Week: Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

I hit a patch awhile back where every book I looked at felt kind of “meh”… until I picked up the manuscript for Wolf Border. I dropped immediately and completely into this story, every page making me more confident I was in the hands of a master. I’m still grateful for the delicious week I spent in Sarah Hall’s world.

I hadn’t read Hall before. But since she’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger, longlisted for the Orange Prize and has won both the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the James Tiptree Jr. Award, it seemed pretty clear I was probably missing something.

Now I wish I wasn’t so late to the game. This is a writer you read for language and her powers of observation. The writing is at once moving and visceral and painterly. It’s achingly, painfully accurate. Consider this passage about two wolves released from confinement:

She slips through the gate, lifts her nose high to scent the surroundings, lopes a few feet along the fence, and then she runs. She runs at full tilt, flooding across the moorland. Within moments there is a large white wolf moving alongside her. The pair veers 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. Rachel watches them go. They cover the open moor in less than a minute. One dark, one light, stellar and obverse, sooling around rocks, their hind muscles working sumptuously under their coats. The months of docile quarantine seem shaken off in seconds; power always lay just underneath. The unmistakable motion of their running – the hard, short bowing of their heads, like swimmers ducking under the surface. They climb the gradient of the hill opposite without slowing, then disappear from sight in the broken terrain.”

Or this description of a baby:

He moves impressively quickly across the floor on all fours, like some species fallen out of the canopy, disabled, but extremely dexterous on its secondary parts, and determined to escape….His eyes are huge and preverbal. He makes long purring, grating sounds, trying to talk back….He is exceptional company; that is to say he demands everything of her and is given it. She nurses him. She changes him. She nurses him again. He likes the firelight, turns his head towards the flames. He is beginning to differentiate colours now, beginning to smile, though many of his expressions remain less happy as he tries to absorb the world’s visceral information.”

This is an author with a distinct, particular vision of humans and animals–and the story takes place at the messy intersection of each species’ drive to mediate wildness and community, the wolf border.

While advance reviews laid out the plot, I have seldom seen so many reviewers stop to also admire the writing, singling out sentences and sections like I did. Pick up this book and you’ll be in its thrall.

“The British writer Sarah Hall is too little known in the United States. Her fifth novel is further proof that this ought to change. A fiercely solitary zoologist, Rachel Caine (‘I don’t have relationships. Just sex.’), is overseeing the restoration of wolves on an Idaho reservation. She’s estranged from her family in northwest England, but is lured back home by an eccentric, Willy Wonka-like earl, who enlists her to manage his controversial plan to breed wolves on his Lake District estate….Ms. Hall’s language — both dense and spare — and her sharp handling of complex political and emotional terrain recalls the meticulous prose of Nadine Gordimer.”
— The New York Times

“Man Booker–finalist Hall tackles the union of nature and British politics in her subdued and ruminative fifth novel. At the outset, [Rachel Caine] leaves her job at an Idaho wildlife recovery program for her native England, where she’ll oversee a controversial project to reintroduce a pair of imported gray wolves to the English wild by way of the Earl of Annendale’s immense Cumbrian estate. The logistics of training, tagging, and monitoring the majestic animals soon play second fiddle to more urgent matters—Rachel’s mother’s suicide; the reunion with her estranged half brother, whom she learns has a drug problem; and her unplanned pregnancy …. The wolves’ journey toward a new kind of freedom serves as a powerful parallel to Rachel’s own struggle to become an increasingly independent woman.”
Publishers Weekly

Telling the story in simple, crystalline sentences and punctuation-free dialogue, Hall peppers the narrative with diamond-hard phrases: a wolf’s eyes are ‘keen as gold, sorrowless’; an old-growth Cumbrian forest is a ‘dark old republic.’ Centering the story are the wolves: ‘ghost-like, elegant, frivolous’…. Hall also deftly carves characters—Pennington’s troubled son, Leo, with ‘a crackle around him: an unwellness, an ill-mood’; and the entitled and privileged earl himself, ‘subject to different laws of gravity, that’s all.’ As Rachel, “a creature hostage to maternity, metamorphosed,” plunges into love with her newborn son, the wolf project is sabotaged when a gate is deliberately left open, a point at which Hall binds the narrative threads together in a satisfying conclusion. A gifted writer, Hall offers a compelling, lyrical story rich in observation and symbolism.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Rachel’s journey is unfeigned and captivating and Ms. Hall’s writing demands recognition. She has a golden touch, texturing her pages with rich metaphor and lyrical prose, especially when it comes to the natural world.”
— The Economist

“The skills that Sarah Hall demonstrates in her highly anticipated fifth novel are significant and profound… So it is that the descriptions of altered or threatened landscapes for which she is celebrated … convey beauty but resist the picturesque, instead posing questions about it.”
— The Guardian

The Wolf Border (9780062208477) by Sarah Hall. $25.99 hardcover. 6/9/15 on sale.

One thought on “Book of the Week: Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

  1. Pingback: New in Paperback: The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall | Harper / Bookselling

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