Monday, 10 August 2015

Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border – a Writer’s Commentary

Bedtime Story
With my tendency towards insomnia I get to hear a lot of fragments of broadcast-radio in the early hours. Recently I heard an episode and a half of Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border.  I was very intrigued with the fragment of story so I checked out the novel and the writer.
Great cover. Imagine the author name
and the wolf silhouette on  the hill
picked out in gold and the title set against
green. planting.Sumptuous.. 

The following day my high-octane reader-friend Gillian told me she had just read a superb novel – original and absorbing. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. (I had been complaining that there is so little originality on modern fiction.)

So I ordered the novel on-line and it arrived yesterday. And now I have spent a delicious day and a half reading and enjoying it.

Very finely and closely written, The Wolf Border is about Rachel, a world authority on wolves - currently working with wolves in Idaho - who is drawn back to her home territory of Cumbria in Britain to work for an enigmatic millionaire earl. He engages Rachel to head a project aiming to re-introduce wolves on his wild land in the Lake District.

So far, so ecologically trendy.

The Story
But the story is so much more than that. More ambitious. More significant. The action takes place over a two year period – in which time the prose floods us with closely observed details of the landscape, seasons, smells, sounds and skies of Cumbria.

But this is no rendering of a country idyll. The action is set against the political background of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ vote for Independence and of the subtle operation of power in British politics. At the heart of the novel are the wolves and the complex arguments for their positive role in the hierarchy of predators.

The collection of people Sarah Hall brings into the story is varied and authentic, adding depth and ambiguity of the characterisation. More than this, the narrative unfolds steadily, arousing the reader’s curiosity, compelling her to read on and on through this long novel. (433 pages.).It is cleverly written and very hard to put down.

One central strand of the story as it develops is the way in which we witness the evolution of Rachel’s emotional identity, as, among other elements - the birth of her son filters through the routines and habits of the pair of wolves as they settle in the prepared land and go through the rituals and processes of attachment involved in their own breeding process.

The Writing
In the hands of a less gifted writer all this barrage of information would be almost unreadable -didactic and very heavy going.
One key to Sarah Hall’s skill in avoiding this problem is that she tells the whole story through Rachel’s eyes, using the third person voice but completely from Rachel’s point of view. We are very close in. We are sharing Rachel’s experience. This immediacy is enhanced by the fact that story is written almost completely in the present tense - very hard to pull off in such a long novel. Sarah Hall manages it.

This is because the originality, delicacy and immediacy of the prose clarifies the complex subject matter, making it easy to read, raising questions in the reader’s mind and sweeping her forward through the action.
The overt transparency is enhanced by her decision not to use punctuation marks for speech. This has been done before but it works very well indeed in this novel.

And she avoids the strong structural element of chapters and titles. The novel is split into substantial parts and these parts are very simply separated by white space. This adds to the flow and the unity of the whole novel.

The Wolf Border shouldn’t be an easy read, but it is.

The Book
Like many of us writers and readers as much as a third my reading is on Kindle, which is functional, useful and fast. 

But there is no denying the extra dimension of literary and reading pleasure in reading a tactile, well designed book such as this. My own interest in book design has been enhanced lately since – in my modern role of artisan writer, - I have been designing and producing my own books.

Faber & Faber are to be congratulated on the design qualities of The Wolf Border which reflect the assiduous care of Sarah Hall in writing the book. The cover is brilliantly designed, a kind of metaphor for the novel’s themes and style. It has a simple clear typeface and is printed on substantial paper and has gorgeous green endpapers.

A wonderfully original novel The Wolf Border certainly earns a permanent place on my book shelves. Highly recommended to those who love good books. original stories and excellent writing.


  1. I very much enjoyed this appreciation of The Wolf Border, Wendy. Another book to add to my 'to read' list. Thank you!

  2. I very much enjoyed this appreciation of The Wolf Border, Wendy. Another book to add to my 'to read' list. Thank you!

  3. Apologies for my comment appearing twice, Wendy. I don't know how that happened!

    1. Now I have three of you. How lovely! I have just read through yuur website Christine. So very interesting and writerly w

  4. A wonderful and original review. Have ordered my copy!



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