Locate. Stalk. Encounter. Rush. Chase. The pace of Sarah Hall’s fifth novel follows the five stages of a wolf hunt as she imagines a pack of apex predators restored to the British countryside: the thrill of lean, grey flanks streaking through the bracken sending vital adrenalin coursing through an ecosystem grown sluggish.
Her fiction is clearly based on the plans of Paul Lister, the heir to the MFI fortune who’s been assembling an ancient wilderness on his 23,000-acre Alladale estate in north eastern Scotland. The deciduous trees, elk and wild boar have already been slotted into place and in 2013 he announced he was conducting feasibility studies for the reintroduction of bears and wolves. Regularly pictured striding through what critics call his ‘Jurassic Park’, the man once estimated to be the 20th richest person in Britain says all he wants to do is ‘build the pyramid that humans have managed to break — the pyramid of life, of evolution, of man not being at the top of the heap’.
Sitting beside the fictional Hugh Pennington in his Land Rover as they splash through the rivers of his Cumbrian ‘Annadale’ estate, Hall’s heroine realises that he is a man who has ‘probably played all his life’. An expert on wolves, newly returned from rugged work on an Idaho reservation, Rachel Caine is suspicious of Hugh’s romantic scheme and keenly aware of the absurdity — the injustice — of one man’s ownership of so much land. Yet she’s not immune to his ‘boyish brilliance’. She has modeled the reintroduction of Canis lupus (the Grey Wolf) and shares the dream of forests no longer destroyed by too many dawdling deer. Something of a lone wolf herself, with a detached, predatory attitude to her casual lovers, she takes the kept scientist’s job of managing Hugh’s pet pack because she’s pregnant and needs a safe, comfortable den in which to give birth and reassess her life. She must try to domesticate herself while keeping Pennington’s playthings feral.
Meanwhile, in Hall’s parallel universe, the Scots vote for independence and the top half of our island is released back into the wild. Private land is on the brink of reclamation by the people. Hall’s alert, focused prose generates a sense of building exhilaration as personal, political and physical boundaries break down.
Best known for her 2007 novel The Carhullan Army (a dark, dystopian tale, also set in her native Cumbria), Hall has a knack for eroticising landscape and here charges Pennington’s territory with the scent of ‘upland pheromones’. Her wolves are also far sexier than any of her heroine’s lovers, as they prowl the perimeters. And in the final pages, the scattered ideas and characters that Hall has sent loping through the story suddenly converge like pack members. There’s a rush of plot, then a reminder that real power — both human and animal — operates on ancient instinct: beyond the rules of the herd and border blind.
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