The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Warning: this turned out to be a very long review, and much of it is more me wrestling with the genre than talking about the specific book. I really ought to edit it severely (I mean, even more severely than I ought to edit most of my reviews…), but I’ve been waiting to get around to that for the last six months, so I’ve given up and I’ve decided just to publish the damn thing. So, sorry about that.

I’m not a very good reader, these days. I don’t read enough – I still enjoy reading, once I’m doing it, but when it comes to actually starting a book, there always seems to be some more immediately (if less fully) rewarding way to spend the time available. It’s more than that, though: not only do I not read enough at all, I also read too narrowly, being still fundamentally a genre reader. Regular readers of the blog – yes, all both of you – may have noticed me venturing out a little from the genre, and finding reward for it: several of the highest-rated books I’ve reviewed here have been, at least theoretically, outside the SF&F genre. And yet, that’s been a bit of an illusion – most of those novels have been drawn either from the classic novel tradition from which SF&F emerged and to which it owes a continuing debt (The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t have any dragons in it, for example, but its period setting, abstract ethical ruminations and series of picturesque adventures make it probably a more comfortable read for a modern fantasy fan than for a modern ‘lit-fic’ reader), or else have been, as it were, closely genre-adjacent in themes or genre-sympathetic in sensibilties. The only complete genre-distant novel I can think of that I’ve reviewed here is The Rider, and that… well, it doesn’t really feel representative of, as it were, the ‘mainstream’ in modern English writing.

What I haven’t really read much of at all, and haven’t reviewed any of for this blog, is writing from what is rather odiously known as ‘literary fiction’ (a term both arrogant and facile) – which is to say, veristic writing about ordinary people in the real world, acting like ordinary people, albeit perhaps in some striking situation. The kind of fiction that we’re all told we need to write – real art.

The Wolf Border seems to tick the boxes. I’m not aware of it itself having won any major awards, but its author certainly appears to fit the profile: first degree in English, second degree in Creative Writing; teaches Creative Writing courses; awards; writer-in-residence; Royal Society of Literature; published poet; literary magazines; Granta list; Booker-shortlisted. The conventional resumé. I read it because I felt I needed to read something like this; because it was recommended to me by several people; and because some of its trappings appealed to me.

[However, the fact that this is the third novel with ‘Wolf’ in the title that I’ve reviewed in the last year is honestly a complete, and slightly embarrassing, coincidence…]

I don’t read a lot in this genre. I’m finding it hard, as a result, to separate out my feelings about this book itself, and my feelings about the genre it represents. My apologies in advance if I’m a little incoherent in trying to set out these two sets of thoughts at the same time…

I think I can say: I can understand why people like and recommend this book. And yet I am not left with any great craving to read more widely in the genre.

The Wolf Border is a relatively short novel (only around 400 pages) about a Cumbrian woman, Rachel, returning to Cumbria after many years abroad, to supervise the introduction of wolves into an eccentric aristocrat’s private estate – and hopefully, along the way, to strengthen her ties to her surviving relatives.

The first thing a reader from outside the genre may notice is the prose. Forty pages in, I was moved to write a parody on my Goodreads timeline – not to be cruel, but simply in an attempt to put my finger on the style by (slightly) exaggerating:

A very Literary style. Familiar. The sentences are short, but laden with cultivated adjectives, catachretic dalliances. Ambushing. They are festooned with kennings, fresh appositives, rephrasings, assayings from new angles. Fragments. New thoughts spring from the white shadows, sentences frequently run on, stylishly rebellious. Lonely writing. Each clause screams out for the reader’s attention, insecure, baroque.

It’s not unattractive. To be honest, it’s not far from certain tropes I find myself slipping back into when I’m not paying enough attention. It is, however, very dense: the narrator does not give up a sentiment without a fight, like a dog that wants to play with each shoe at length when you’d really like to just get them on your feet so you can take the creature for a walk. There is little sense here of there being a time and a place to grab the attention: everything is turned up to eleven throughout, and it’s hard not to be wearied of the enthusiastic monotony of it all (although, to be fair, the prose does calm down a little bit once we’re into things a little more); by extension, it’s hard for the prose to ramp up the interest at what should, narratively, be key moments, because it’s already working flat-out even in the quiet bits. It feels, as I say, insecure – the really great writers can knock you down with a paragraph when they want to, to be sure, but they also have the confidence to let their storytelling do the work the rest of the time.

And what do we get out of the roccocco striving of the prose? Not that much, to be honest; not, I think, enough to be worth the heavy lifting. To be sure, every few pages there’s an image or a turn of phrase that lands well; but there damn well ought to be, when we’re having a dozen strained metaphors thrown at us on every page. There’s almost a mechanistic feel to it at times, like those engines that auto-generate Daily Mail headlines or continental philosophy paper titles by throwing a set of nouns and verbs into a matrix of favourite structures, with no concern for meaning. I’m sorry, I’m being harsh there; I’m not saying the writing is really randomised in that way. But at times it’s so very much exactly what you’d expect it to be that it’s hard not to roll the eyes; and from time to time, there’s a leap made that’s so ungainly that it’s hard not to laugh. When she describes a wolf’s colour as “a true grey – tawny as the landscape”, I don’t get the sense of a profound truth being conveyed through knowing paradox, I get the sense of a writer who reached for a thesaurus without really thinking what ‘tawny’ meant (hint: very, very much not grey). When she talks about the (‘sliding’) ‘loam’ of a man’s semen, I assume she’s reaching for the atavistic fertility of the soil – there’s a lot of comforting earthy naturey words thrown around – but I can’t help wonder what the hell sort of serious medical issue the poor man must have. Have you seen loam? Have you touched loam? A good metaphor works on two levels: the profound but questionable second meaning is allowed to ride in through the mind’s gate on the plain but unrefusable first. Too often in this novel the author simply reached for the Meaningful Meaning without bothering to check that the overt sense actually… made sense.

At one point, she describes a man’s penis as “fine and silken […] almost artisan, like mediaeval machinery”. Mediaeval machinery; artisan. Mediaeval machinery; fine and silken. Fine and silken; penis. Penis; mediaeval machinery. Artisan; penis. It’s almost impressive, this polygamous shotgun wedding of wholly, epically dissimilar things under the brazen yoke of a simile and a metaphor that just dare the reader to call their bluff. It’s a sentence that seems as though it were written on a dare, or as part of some secret game, played on the reader. But we can all do it. Look: my dog is feline, like a rabbit. It eats my cruel and jagged handkerchief, translucent and oppressed like a French archbishop. I love a good catachresis more than most, but even I have my limits. They weren’t reached often in this book… but they were reached at times. [if they were reached more often, that might be a good thing: there’s something at least to be said for brave, self-aware elàn…]

The bigger problem I have with the prose, however, is not that it occasionally lapses into nonsense – there are worse crimes than being flamboyantly ridiculous – but that, far too often, it’s both ostentatious and dull. The problem isn’t that the author has nothing to say, but that the things she says are mostly familiar in substance, and terribly familiar in form. The writing is, sorry to say, often wincingly cliché – not in the sense that it recycles exact formulae (oh, it goes to pains to avoid that), but that the alternative routes it finds are just so stereotypical for this kind of writing that it sometimes becomes embarrassing. I don’t think there was a single sentence in this novel that surprised me. This is, to be fair, a very different and altogether more accomplished and rarified form cliché than the workmanlike shorthands you’ll often find in pulp SF&F novels and the like. And yet it still follows, perhaps even more strictly, the rules of a game known to all players; what has been learnt is recited, with generally quite fine enunciation, but no deviation from what was taught, or what has been recited by other pupils.

To put this all another way, as another observer more concisely observed: this is prose that looks like it’s been workshopped.

The appeal of the workshop is undeniable; and I’m sure they – and the creative writing classes that provide their ammunition – serve a very valuable function, particularly for new writers. A workshop can hone a writer’s prose, make her question and justify every line, force her to think about her writing, not make lazy compromises, always work a little harder to stand out, to grab the attention. But prose that is too polished offers the reader no purchase. When everything grabs the attention, nothing does. And when you write in a way that garners no disapproval from a group of peers and teachers, you write in a way that becomes very predictable precisely through its inoffensiveness. You write like everyone else who has been processed through the same machine: perhaps better, perhaps worse, but either way, familiar.

This is writing that is very hard to dislike; it’s a novel, in fact, that’s very hard to actively dislike. That’s perhaps its biggest problem. My opening remarks above call The Rider to my memory – a novel no more fantastical in content than The Wolf Border, but the style of which is so shocking, so confrontational, so willing to be disliked, not for the sake of controversy, but simply in order to put its narrator’s view of life across honestly and empathetically. It makes its narrator feel both special and intensely real. In The Wolf Border, I was neither convinced that anything was real, nor persuaded that anything was particularly special, which rather left me wondering what the point of it was.

But let’s take a step back, and try to really think about the book, and not the genre. Because, in fairness, the author can’t entirely be blamed for all this. She has to write within the bounds of her chosen genre (“literary” writers may be superficially free from worrying about commercial success, but of course the flipside is a certain indebtedness to the smaller clique who decide such things as prize monies and residencies and so forth), and unfortunately that genre is inherently rather mass-produced in feel. If we regard cliché as a deadly sin, and deprecate every rusty mechanism of a genre, we’d be left with few things left to read. It should be said that, as this sort of writing goes, this isn’t that bad. There are, as I say, genuine moments of literary payoff for the style, and the number of outright clunkers is relatively small. Although the denseness of the writing makes it a rather ponderous read, and contributes to a certain flabbiness around the pagecount – 400 pages isn’t much, but it should be enough for considerably more both plot and character development than we actually get – it’s generally readable, even attractive, once you get into the swing of things.

I mostly enjoyed it.

[Unfortunately, among the many other affectations of the genre on display, The Wolf Border adopts a zero-tolerance approach to quotation marks. This is one of the most colossally stupid affectations to be found in literature, which costs a great deal and yet offers almost nothing in return – particularly when paired, as here, with a loose grasp of punctuation and paragraphing conventions and an insecure fear of the word ‘said’. There are moments in this novel when it sort of works – it helps to create a sort of blurring of reality, as dialogue, description and internal monologue merge together at the edges – but this is rarely in service of the needs of a passage, and more often undermines them. I don’t believe this affectation is necessarily fatal for a novel – I loved Blindness, for example, which does the same thing (although, it must be said, the consequent irrealist tint better suits Saramago’s magic realist fable than it does Hall’s veristic style) – but it’s certainly a pointless slap in the face for the casual reader (I’m sure I’m not alone in suspecting that slapping lowly casual readers in the face and keeping the readership pure is a big part of why literary fiction is so keen on this trope). But again, should I be raising this issue here? After all, it’s just another cliché of the genre (a typographic cliché – the least interesting type of cliché!), not a fault specifically of this novel. It is, after all, very clearly written for a particular audience, and that audience needs certain things to feel at home; apparently, bad punctuation is just one of those things.]

One reason the overbearing style does work well as it does is that the narration is closely welded to the character of our protagonist and viewpoint character, Rachel, a woman who is obviously suffering from serious but undiagnosed depression and a legacy of trauma. [of course she is – isn’t that also one of the demands of the genre?] The obsessive detail and recurring themes, strange non sequiturs and pervasive feeling of over-rationalised detachment, even alienation, are consequently more appropriate than they are in some other novels; here they serve, rather than undermining, character.

Rachel is, overwhelmingly, the great virtue of this novel. I can’t say she’s a particularly interesting woman per se – other than her chosen specialist subject (wolf conservation), her concerns and issues are, again, very stereotypical for the genre. But over the course of 400 pages, I did genuinely feel as though I had gotten to know her. She felt – mostly – real. She has a lived-in mind. And, fortunately, she is largely sympathetic – smart, but not odiously smart; morally good, but not too annoyingly perfect. That, ultimately, is what the book is for, I guess: you get to spend your time with this curious person, the sort of woman you might meet at a dinner party but probably won’t be able to coax much out of, due to her reticent manner and thinly-veiled disdain for the sort of person who attends dinner parties (which, nonetheless, she herself also attends). What is that woman really thinking, you might ponder over your canapés, as she surveys the assembled local notables with this beguiling polychord of silently superior bravado and creeping, hereditary self-doubt? – and fair enough. Fantasising about the inner lives of the sort of people you meet at respectable dinner parties (and yet who seem just slightly, tantalisingly, out of place at them) is not an inherently illegitimate activity – and if your view of the purpose of literature is to sate that sort of curiosity, then this book will really please you. Sure, genre fans may yearn for our familiar, insular, crowd-pleasing genre interests – clashes of cultures, terrible moral dilemmas, metaphysical and metaethical questings into the nature of existence, portraits of the extremes of human nature for better or worse, case studies of implacable causality in complex sociological, political, ideological and religious contexts – but these are after all only niche concerns, much less pressing for the general middle-class public than the intriguing stranger hovering indecisively near the cheeseboard. And that – the literature of the cheeseboard – is where a novel like The Wolf Border lives.

[it would deny this. It would see itself as wild and atavistic, because it has ‘wolf’ in the title, and the author has done research about the habit of wolves. And yet everything in the novel feels neat and in its place, never posing a threat to the reader. It is intensively farmed literature.]

[this is a tangent, and not placed here to further criticise a novel to which I’ve already been unfairly dismissive in tone (and as to that: I’m sorry, I stretch my thoughts out to their breaking point to see their details more clearly; I’m not mocking, I’m word-painting in the lame pursuit of an apposite analogy that never quite presents itself), but: I think this is why I’m sometimes drawn more than I ‘should’ be to some books that aren’t that well written. It’s the difference between, for me, a farm and a forest. A novel like The Wolf Border is a very well-kept farm, even a utopian farm; everything has been grown to popular proportions, and you can stroll down the bean rows, checking that each pod has an even number of beans. Everything grown in it is inoffensive; it’s been quality-controlled from seed. Its fruits have been workshopped. Only the most terribly gauche food critic could take issue with anything they found here; it’s all done to the regulation standards. But out beyond the pale, in the wild wood, anything goes. In a novel like Wolf in Shadow, which I reviewed recently, the fruits, the nuts, the mushrooms are misshapen and slightly weird, slightly repellent in the wrong light. Each one is different. A few of them are delicious; many of them are so off that you spit them out in disgust. Now and then there’s something that seems awful at first, but the distinctive, unplaceable aftertaste flirts with your memory, daring you to go back and take another bite. Every clearing is a smorgasbord of tentative discoveries, approached not without a little dread, but also not without a little fascination. There’s something wild in it, and true, despite – no, sometimes not even despite but through – its obvious inadequacies. There’s something there that you don’t find (perhaps with good reason!) in your local agricorporate greenhouse, something that does not grow easily in garden soil, something that the writer has had to go somewhere strange to find, and has struggled to bring back whole (in Gemmell’s case, what he brings is, broadly speaking, the incoherent yet salvific interplay of heroic, self-reliant machismo and tentative Christian faith in the face of the author’s own tragic experiences of death and disillusionment). I suppose some people do long for the manicured gardens, perhaps as comfort in a wild, unfriendly world; but me, I’m more fascinated by the wilderness, at least when I can explore it from the safe haven of my own comfy chair.]

But that tangent, of course, is not really about this book – at most, about its genre. What about the book?

[I did warn you I’d be having difficulty with this!]

Having talked about the main character, Rachel, the great virtue of the book, we – wait, no, there’s something else I want to say. And that’s that the one really interesting thing here, for me personally, if you’ll excuse a minor spoiler, is Rachel’s internal ruminations on the topics of pregnancy and motherhood. This is something that’s often missing from SF&F; I’ve read, of course, a few pulp fantasy novels in which the viewpoint character gives birth on the page, with associated thoughts on the whole business, but to be honest those novels could be counted on one hand, and even in them, it tends only to be a brief interlude before the main business is returned to. In this regard, SF&F suffers doubly: on the one hand, the genre’s bias toward propulsive narratives tends not to allow for too much pondering of things that, while vital to human existence, tend not to be immediately relevant to the plot; and on the other hand, when the genre does turn toward considerations of parenthood, it generally finds it much easier to address them through a male lens, because the traditional role of fatherhood is more thematically connected to the conventional topics of genre writing. I’m thinking, for example, of Hobb, and the way that she dedicates so much time to exploring Fitz’s relationships both in the role of son (or ersatz son) and of father (or ersatz father), and how she integrates those roles thematically into the broader-scale issues of social responsibility and social change: Fitz’s paternal and filial responsibilities often conflict, both with one another and with his metaphorically paternal and filial responsibilities toward the monarchy, the nation, his own ethnicity, and humanity – but they conflict as two sides of the same coin, and exploring his attitudes toward one simultaneously explores his attitude toward another, and they are all part of the same personality and the same moral universe. Fitz worrying about his duty to protect and guide a child is part and parcel of the question of his duty to protect his people and to guide his rulers. Parenthood for women in fantasy, on the other hand (less so in SF, I suppose), is often placed in direct opposition to the overriding themes: for a character like Gentle’s Ash, for example, becoming a mother – the physical inconvenience of pregnancy, the danger of childbirth, the challenge of being a primary caregiver – are to a considerable extent a threat, not only to her body physically and to her mind and her self-perception, but also to the plot itself, which does not have time for that sort of diversion. Similarly, even in an Anne McCaffrey novel, bathed in a golden and frankly rather disturbing glow of breeding-like-rabbits-is-a-woman’s-purpose ‘empowerment’, a character like Sorcha in Dragonsdawn may welcome motherhood and even sort of enjoy childbirth, and yet in practical terms her children are treated as an obstacle to getting back on her horse and/or dragon – because, in practical terms, Sorcha’s role as a mother is perpendicular to the novel’s heroic plot.

It is not, of course, that Rachel regards the possibility of motherhood with a dedicated and untrammelled joy. Anything but! But because the focus of the novel is internal – the novels’ chief interest is Rachel’s own psychology – pregnancy may threaten Rachel’s ambitions, but only helps to futher the author’s.

Less successful in my opinion is the author’s exploration of Rachel’s clinical depression. At least, I’m assuming it’s an exploration of clinical depression – it might just be how characters in literary fiction are meant to think and act, for genre reasons. In either case, it evidently IS an exploration of clinical depression, whether or not it’s intentional. Depression is famously difficult to write about – it tends to result in boredom and frustration for the reader (which is probably a big part of why I don’t read more books in this genre). In this book, the boredom isn’t too bad – Hall does a good job of using plot, episodic tangents and her baroque prose to distract the reader from her protagonist’s fundamental inertia – but the frustration is very, very great. Rachel is a woman who is smart enough to know what she should do, and to recognise her own mental health issues (though never explicitly as ‘mental health issues’ per se), yet too burdened by mental ill-health to actually act on her knowledge – and since the reader can see just as much as Rachel can (indeed, rather more – like most fictional protagonists, she’s written to be slighter dumber than the reader), the frustration of watching her self-sabotage is constant. She’s easy to empathise with, but hard to sympathise with – you kind of want to just grab her by the shoulders and shake her.

What I think the author struggles with here is making Rachel not just relatable, but understood. Again, I’m reminded of Robin Hobb, and the way that depression in many forms is a constant factor in Fitz’s psychology throughout all nine of his novels – but Hobb (who has been open about her own struggles with depression) weaves those notes so much more subtly into her protagonist’s experience of the world that we don’t realise until the final few books just how much his affliction has gently but pervasively warped his understanding of himself and of events. Instead of us wanting to shout at him to snap out of it (well, OK, there’s plenty of that too, but for other reasons…), we go along with it, and as the protagonist’s greater wisdom allows him to gradually reassess events, and himself, we do the same thing – in some cases we even realise that the ‘wisdom’ we wanted him to snap out of to was itself distorted. This narrative style, which both Hall and Hobb employ, in which everything is presented through the lens of the protagonist’s own attitude and opinion, is incredibly powerful in this way, because the reader is more in the thrall of the protagonist than they realise, and is easily led astray by them; but Hall does not commit to this, seems to always want to maintain a level of ironic detachment, to keep her head above the water of her protagonist’s reality – but by declining to make this division official (with an independent narrator) the effect is only to undermine the protagonist’s authority and reality. Of course, Hall is working against the limitations of her genre, and in particular against the limitations of wordcount – Hobb has a luxury, in writing nine door-stop tomes in three trilogies taking place across many decades in the life of a man (in youth, middle age, and (well-preserved) old age, each one able to look back on and undermine the assumptions of the younger man), that the writer of a short novel about a long year simply does not possess. But then again, perhaps this should be taken as a reason why serious life-long depression isn’t a great topic for a novel of this length and subject matter. Either the protagonist takes considerable steps toward health, or they don’t – if they don’t, then 450 pages is a long time to spend with someone repeating the same mistakes, but if they do, then 450 pages (of a very moment-by-moment narrative) is not very long to make any substantial change in life course feel earned and realistic. And The Wolf Border sort of falls into both those traps, with Rachel’s progress feeling both implausibly, simplistically novelistic and, at the same time, wearyingly slow. Having said that, however, the author has certainly done a better job with a difficult topic, and and I believe poorly-chosen pagecount, than other writers have. The fact that I found this only frustrating and implausible, rather than infuriating and ridiculous, is to some extent to the credit of the author’s skill; and again, I must try to separate the novel itself from the limitations of its chosen genre!

[The phrase ‘implausibly novelistic’ captures a problem I had throughout the book. It’s so very… so very much the archetype of what you think it’ll be. Now of course, SF&F novels are often highly implausible; but what I think gets me with this style is the artifice of naturalism. The novel seems to show little awareness of its own genre limitations, of its own artificial superficiality; it seems to want to present itself as a look at real – albeit heightened – life. And yet the trappings of naturalism only highlighted to me its literary… tweeness? But again, I think this is probably more a criticism of the genre than of the novel.]

Having talked about Rachel, we should also talk about the other characters. But I also want to talk about the plot. Fortunately, this is no dilemma in this case, since all the other characters are two- (or in some cases one-)dimensional plot devices. Specifically, they’re plot devices from a bargain basement romance novel.

It’s hard for me to work out why I want to say that, exactly. It isn’t just that the ostensible plot of the novel is repeatedly hijacked by the protagonist’s obsession with sex and the possibilities of romance. That’s not necessarily unrealistic, or inherently a narrative problem. After all, Rachel is a relatively young, single woman in a new place, with a job that’s a lot of work and worry but also gives her plenty of free time, in a setting that offers few diversions. It’s natural that she’ll be looking at many of the men she meets as prospective partners, either sexual or romantic (or both). The extent of Rachel’s monomania is startling, even at times laughable – her immediate reaction on seeing unknown men walking up a distant hill is to fantasise that their wives must be ‘frigid’ – but not necessarily unrealistic. It does kind of feel like overcompensation – look, women can be sexual too! Let me prove it by having my character be completely and weirdly obsessed with sex! – and similarly it feels as though the desire to show that women can be interested in meaningless sex results in something simplistic and uninteresting (the sort of ‘defence’ of other women that at times reads as an excuse to both pruriently salivate and prudishly feign shock) and in particular the resulting (not absolute, but rather clear) equation of casual sex = mentally ill, traditional romance = healthy feels not just simplistic but frankly rather derogatory, in a way that I think the author is trying to pull away from, but can’t really escape. But while that’s a problem, it’s at least a complicated problem, so that’s not what makes it feel like Mills and Boon. And it should be said that while sex is an ever-present in Rachel’s thoughts, it’s not actually what the novel revolves around – only a very small fraction of the book is actually dedicated to sex scenes, and while romantic considerations obsessively return and return as counterpoint, they only occasionally rise to become the main foreground topic.

Nor is it just how unintentionally risible the sex scenes are. To be fair, it’s hard to write sex scenes, and harder still when you’re trying to do it in a rather pretentiously ostentatious language; bodily functions tend to cut through the affectations. [I’m sure some readers will find it wonderfully sexy; it takes all sorts. But sex scenes are heavily reliant on po-faced charity: once the reader starts giggling, the spell breaks (unless it’s in on the joke, of course; and this novel, this genre, is never in on the joke; there’s nary a glimmer of taking itself less than ultimately seriously). And I just can’t get through descriptions of seminal loam sliding forth from the silken mediaeval engineering of artisanal penises without losing the ability to take it seriously].

No, it’s… something more superficial, and more fundamental, than all that. It’s a sort of… way the author approaches the characters. It’s as though every character is a kind of ideal fantasy, an actor in an eternal melodrama, a commedia dell’arte, that has only loosely been dressed up to serve a role in this particular narrative. It’s something that’s not unique to the thinly-disguised recurring fantasies of romance fiction – but that is very strongly seen there. You see it a lot in bad fan-fiction too, particularly of the sort that very directly feeds a certain psychotherapeutic need (like hurt/comfort fantasies, or proving-the-bullies-wrong fantasies, and so on).

I can’t sum it up exactly, but I can give an example: everyone is the most themselves version of themselves you could imagine. So one potential love interest, and the main mechanism for initiating and shaping the whole plot, is a rich English guy. So he has to be an aristocrat, obviously (in reality, a guy this rich probably wouldn’t be an aristocrat, but in romantic fantasies he’s always an aristocrat). And if he’s an English aristocrat, that means he must be charming (and, like all (but one? YMMV) men in this novel, hot, needless to say) but harmlessly eccentric. Needless to say, part of his eccentricity must be an affectation, to disarm and fluster those who don’t see through him (oh, what a clever protagonist, and such clever readers, to see through him, when all these ordinary people don’t understand!). He has to be potentially romantically available, and of course he must be older than the heroine, but not some weirdo, so he should probably be a widower – I know, a tragic helicopter accident, that’s eccentric-yet-real enough, and definitive enough while allowing for an element of mystery. But there should be a potential practical barrier, beyond the frisson of sexy inappropriateness created by their relative status, so he should have a daughter. Daughter of an aristocrat? She must be a seemingly airheaded but goodhearted, stunningly attractive blonde (so much more beautiful than the heroine – oh, how excitingly out of place the heroine is in such company, with her conventional looks and rustic, honest ways!) yet be smarter than she first lets on; inexperienced with real work, but surprisingly willing to learn. And for added drama, maybe a son, too – but that’s too much drama, so he should be out of the picture mostly, just there to add some dark notes around the corner, because obviously as the only son of an aristocrat he must be terribly spoiled, and as the son of a dead mother he must have a brooding dark side, and probably some sort of drug or alcohol addiction, and people should try to be understanding yet mutter darkly and ominously, yet conveniently vaguely, about his dark side. And to return to the eccentric rich guy – oh, this isn’t the sort of novel where someone is rich, or owns a large estate. This is the sort of novel in which someone must be – or better yet, be rumoured to be – one of the Richest And Most Eligible Men In England, and must own the Largest Estate In England. Of course he does. Meanwhile, there’s a plain-spoken, reassuring  yet wryly charming rural vetinarian with calloused but gentle hands, and if you’ve seen or read about one plain-spoken, reassuring yet wryly charming rural vetinarian with calloused but gentle hands, you’ve read about them all, and this one is no exception. Obviously, he too must be older than her, and hence a widower, again. The young, really friendly, uncomplicated co-worker can’t just be someone with experience working with wild animals – oh god no. He must be one of the greatest young wild animal rangers in the world – he’s South African, of course, because that’s so exotic, you know, and you know how these characters make that accent seem sort of self-deprecating? – from one of the world’s biggest and best nature reserves, it’s such a miracle that they were able to get him for this wolf project! (when your characters have to lampshade how implausible it is that someone so perfect for the job would happen to turn up, that’s usually a sign you should dial back the wish-fulfillment). The way the American love interest blends perfectly the fantasies of “sophisticated, ecologically-activist young American” and “wild, rugged American from the rugged land of free soil and giant perfect rugged skies” – you can practically hear the motorbike when he speaks, and you know before she mentions it that of course he has a tattoo on his calf, under his denim jeans. The wolves the charmingly aristocrat wants to bring to his eccentric largest estate in England, where could they be from – there are so many wolves in the world! But no, there’s only one answer. Well, I guess they could have been American too, but she’s going for a more atavistic fantasy here, with dark murmurings from the public reliving the ancestral fears, so they’re from… yup, Romania. I mean, if you’re going to have ancestrally-frightening wolves whose atavistic song rings out in the forested night, of course they’re going to be from the shadowy mapless forests of Transylvania and the ominous ancient crags of the dread Carpathians, why not (in this case, the author balances out her constant fetishisation and romanticisation of the wolves with constant criticism of others for doing exactly the same thing, so that she can play both sides of the game; hey, the acknowledgements even boast about having read several books and talked to someone once who knew what they were talking about, so this must all be so realistic*).

You get the idea. It’s the way that everything feels recycled from a storybook – perhaps set to a new purpose, but still the same old articulated GI Joe model enacting a new variation of an old fantasy.  It’s the way that, if you filmed this, you could re-use many of the sets, and background characters, from the rural scenes in Hot Fuzz.

And no, the difficult but admirably strong-willed mother, and the grown-apart-but-not-that-bad-really brother with his Mysterious (and so, so obvious) Special Episode Dark Secret and his bitchily unfriendly (yet inwardly suffering and good!) Perfect Wife do not help in this regard.

*I must admit, I always roll my eyes a bit at the pre-emptive ‘look how much research I did!’ notes at the beginning of books, which tend to seem both boastful and underwhelming. I think the only time I’ve actually appreciated one of these ‘cite your sources’ notes was in Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Chabon doesn’t give the names of two books and a nod to an expert he e-mailed once, he gives a complete five-page bibliography covering everything from historical sociology through to meteorology. If you’re going to show off, have something to show!

 

And yet, this too is more than a little hypocritical of me, isn’t it? After all, SF&F is hardly known for the absence of archetypal characters, is it? How can I criticise an LF novel for the same sin?

Well, I think I can. For one thing, while I often find generic archetypes tolerable, I very rarely find them an actual virtue of a novel – so in that respect, I’m criticising this novel by the same standard I apply elsewhere. For another, these archetypes here may be written in better and more flattering prose, but they’re genuinely less explored and contextualised than they often are in SF&F. To go back to the last fantasy novel I read: yes, John Shannow, reluctantly heroic lone gunslinger in a lawless semi-arid world, is a representative of an extremely hoary archetype, and the writing isn’t good enough to conceal the loud echoes of Wayne and Eastwood right from the start; but he’s not just that, and much of the novel is really about what a person would really have to be like (violent, confused, hurt, obsessive, probably insane) to sustain that persona. There isn’t really anything like that here – everyone is what they seem to be, and if they’re not then they wear a big I’m Not What I Seem To Be! warning sign right from the start. There’s almost no complexity, nuance, or just surprise in the characters, other than Rachel herself. [Rachel is also a fairly predictable and familiar character, but she’s given enough detail and nuance, as I say, to feel both real and specific in a way that the other characters are not]. For a third thing: so much of the novel wants to be – portrays itself as – better than this. Rachel is painted with nuance and care; the prose tries very, very hard to be Serious; it’s desparate to Be a Good Book. But at best, it’s the Good version of a cheap romance paperback. There’s kind of an uncanny-valley effect, to see a real person, Rachel, interacted with all these obvious fantasies – if it were revealed halfway through that everyone other than Rachel was, unbeknownst to her, actually an actor working on The Rachel Show, or that Rachel in fact had a total psychotic break ten pages in and everything after that were a delusion with details drawn from various soap operas she’d seen mixed with a few true facts from her own past, a fever dream from which she could not wake up until she understood The Moral that her subconscious was trying to tell her, it wouldn’t feel implausible or out of place. Which for something so flamboyantly realist is kind of a problem. And on that note, but regarding the genre as a whole, rather than this specific novel: I think there’s a pervasive uncanny valley problem right from the start. It’s one thing for a ‘human’ on an alien planet, or communing with elves, or a thousand years in our past or future, to feel strange, ‘off’, unreal – indeed, that’s often part of the charm of the genre. But when we’re theoretically dealing with ordinary English people living in our own day and age, even small issues with realism are greatly magnified.

And on that issue: I’d forgotten how hard it was to read something like this obediently. Something set not just in our own world, but in my own country, in my own time, in (sort of) my own social class. In a place I actually (somewhat) know!

Time and time again I found myself skeptical; several times I had to double-check facts online. That’s not necessarily the fault of the author. Most of the concrete issues I had, she turned out to be right – which was no surprise, because she knows the place better than I do. [I have multiple family connexions to Cumbria, and have visited many, many times, but she was actually born in Carlisle.] It turns out, checking Google Maps, that yes, Leeds actually is far enough east that, to get to Blencathra, it is indeed marginally quicker to go via Scotch Corner! (although if he’d taken the M6 instead, he could have stopped off at Tebay services and had a really quite good meal, and not have to be complaining about how he hadn’t been able to have food, which would surely have been worth the extra 15 minutes – didn’t think that one through, did he? And come to think of it, why is she going all the way to Blencathra to meet him, that’s the other side of the Lakes from her! If he’d taken the A65, they could have met up at, say, the Old Man instead, and he’d actually have had a quicker drive while she’d have had to go only a fraction of the distance; and really, everyone calls it Blencathra? I know that’s what tourists call it, because of Wainwright, but when my dad was growing up underneath it everybody called it Saddleback – has the popular local name really changed? Possible, given how many newcomers there have been. Or did Rachel grow up too far from Saddleback to know what it was really called? Or did the author? Come to think of it, while Saddleback is a really convenient hill for a Carlisle-based writer to have memories of (it’s one of the first you come to if you’re driving down from the north), isn’t it a bit weird of a pick for a character who is on the other side of the Lakes? Wait, do we ever get told specifically where Rachel is from, though? Maybe she is from that area herself, and that’s why they pick it. But th…

…you see what I mean? It’s not that I really believe the author is wrong (although I really don’t quite understand the geography of how this estate is meant to fit in where they say it is); it’s that, because she’s talking about things I know about, even if only vaguely, I’m constantly subconsciously fact-checking her the way I would non-fiction.  I find it hard to just suspend disbelief. I mean, particularly when she goes around naming Scottish aristocrats “Caleb”, but even the rest of the time. And not just when, for example, a character drives what appears very strongly from context to be a new car, and it’s a Saab, which we all know went bankrupt four years before the novel was published (the novel, FWIW, must be set in the relatively near future. Unless it’s an alternate history timeline? Well, I mean, it must be an alternate history because obviously this aristocrat and his estate don’t exist (and Lowther Castle, then recently re-opened, is here named ‘Setterah Keep’, presumably for trademark or political reasons?), so when exactly was the point of divergence!? – ugh, I know Literary Fiction readers are just meant to not think about things like this, and it’s OK, in this genre, for the author to just handwave stuff without much thought or detail, but I find it hard to shut my brain off the way Literary Fiction demands!). The political side, overall, seems like the dodgiest bit – not in the sense of being flat-out inaccurate, but just reading as off, as improbable, as sort of politics-as-heard-about-second-hand (even just the emphasis and respect placed on the aristocrat’s power in ‘the House’, by which they mean the Other Place). But in any case, even if the book were solid in its worldbuilding in every regard, I’d still be finding it an aggrevating experience, reading about a time and place so close to my own experience – it’s like paying for the author to gaslight you. This may be the biggest reason why I’m unlikely to ever read that widely in this genre – and certainly why I couldn’t write in it.

But of course, most of this is not the fault of this specific novel…

)

Anyway, the theoretical plot of the novel is slight and predictable. The protagonist is given her quest early on, and after a token, by-the-book Refusing of the Call, all proceeds as expected. There’s the obligatory Ominous Threat, but backgrounded enough to feel more like a plot excuse than a genuine source of unease (Rachel herself downplays the threat and we’re given little reason to doubt her judgement in this regard). The finale approaches, and we all know what it’s going to be – we know how a book like this has to end. To get there, there is of course an Unexpected Twist, but it’s the obvious Unexpected Twist we were all expecting – even Rachel seems to have been half-expecting it in hindsight – so again this causes little drama, which I suspect was intentional (it’s the sort of book where nothing should be allowed to risk confusing or upsetting the most dim-witted member of an awards panel). More problematically, the conclusion relies – not so much in order to enact the plot, as to enact the aesthetic desired of the finale – on Rachel suddenly becoming a colossal, even irrational idiot and behaving entirely out of character: a contrivance so annoying that Rachel herself is annoyed by it, and points it out to herself and to us. Again, when you have to lampshade these things, that should probably be a sign that, as an author, you just shouldn’t be doing them in the first place. If there’s a redeeming feature in this regard, it’s that everything that happens at the end is so cliché that it seemed ungracious, as a reader, to quibble with the plausibility: we know, and on some level even Rachel seems to know, that at a certain point the implacable authorial gods will take over, and drag their pieces around the board in the predetermined ways, creating certain set pieces with which to express certain attitudes proper to the genre; Rachel has no say in the matter anymore, perhaps even the author has no say in the matter in the face of genre demands; and as a reader I found myself accepting my fate. It’s like the bit in a TV show where the cool detective (or soldier, agent, etc) gives out a pun, coolly dons his shades and grins into the camera as the show cuts to an advert break – it feels churlish to analyse whether the observed weather conditions really merit the sunglasses or why, if it really is that bright, he took them off just for that one dramatic moment. I mean, that’s not something the screenwriters or the director is in control of – that’s just how the show is meant to work. Week in, week out.

I’ve been very disrespectful in my tone, I think; and again, I’m sorry about that. In ordinary life, of course, it’s often much more important to maintain good relations with the neighbours, and to avoid offering offence, than it is to be really explicit about how one feels; but in reviewing a novel, at least in a venue like this – rambling, individual reviews on a tiny, personal blog with a readership barely statistically visible, for my own benefit and of those who willingly, masochistically, put themselves reading one of these explosions of verbosity – I think the opposite is true. If I don’t try to get to the bottom of what I feel, there’s no point writing these reviews. And that’s mostly going to be an exploration of why something doesn’t quite completely work. If you don’t have anything bad to say, don’t say anything [that could practically be my family motto…].

In the case of The Wolf Border, I guess I can actually sum up what didn’t quite satisfy me, quite concisely: I guess I’m just a literary masochist [introspective tangent: is that in part because in reality I’m very pain- and danger-averse?]. I want a novel to, at some point, slap me in the face. To not be what I want it to be – to defy the reader, to challenge, to surprise, even shock, but on its own terms, and in its own way. And in the case of The Wolf Border, I remained entirely un-slapped. The characters; the plot; the mood; all but a handful of sentences of the prose: nothing surprised me; everything felt familiar.

But maybe it’s just that literary fiction, with its specific genre demands, isn’t for me.

[Indeed, maybe that’s why instinctively I don’t classify even the less fantastic novels I’ve loved as ‘literary fiction’, because they’re willing to challenge the reader, in the manner of SF&F. I’m reminded of The Rider’s infamous opening paragraph, in which the narrator disinterestedly observes ordinary people, before summing up the whole of conventional life, and most of the novel’s readers with a terse, alien dismissal: “Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”  Or, indeed, the insane and beautiful debate that opens The Man Who Was Thursday, culminating in the hero’s insistence that the most poetic thing in the world is the London Underground: “We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria.”]

But I do want to be clear that The Wolf Border is not without its own, polite, virtues. There is nothing illegitimate, after all, about wanting to not be slapped in the face – about wanting a cozy evening spent in the company of somebody familiar, and mildly but safely interesting, as they chat about their day. About wanting to immerse yourself in a reassuring stream of consciousness. To indulge in a comfort read, in effect – even if it’s a slightly self-harming comfort, as here. In many ways, The Wolf Border is to the novel what emo music is to music: the chance for us to re-enact, even melodramatise, our moments of sadness and quiet despair, to relive them out with the added feeling of being in supportive company… but never to risk falling too far out of moderation as we do so, to never confront or expose ourselves too much, to never be too unfashionable or weird or individual. I must admit, I never listened to emo music when I was a teenager, but I did listen to Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead while reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol a lot, so the idea of gently prodding an old bruise in a way that sort of hurts, but hurts in an interesting and comforting way, a way that takes the notion of pain and makes it something unthreatening, something under your control, is not alien to me.

There’s nothing intrinsically objectionable about the literature of the self-harming cheeseboard – its amalgam of soap opera gossip and harm/comfort repetitive self-stimulation answers fundamental needs. Literature absolutely should be a place where readers are able to explore simplified, stylised echoes of their own experiences and pains, and it absolutely should be a place where readers can come to try to make sense of the other human beings they encounter every week at their dinner party cheeseboards.

I’m just not sure if that’s what I’m looking for in a novel.

If you are looking for that in a novel, The Wolf Border has, as I’ve said, a lot to recommend it. Its protagnist is broadly sympathetic (if sometimes frustrating), and it enacts well-trodden arcs in a way that will not frighten the horses, while also bringing a decent amount of specificity and observational detail, and some moments of genuine pathos.

Above all, which I’m not sure I’ve really adequately conveyed in the above dissection (sadly, it is so difficult to dissect something gently!), is that it’s really easy to read. The heavy prose takes a bit to get into, but once you’ve got your brain in the right gear it’s quite digestable, and there’s just enough plot to pull the reader along, while also bearing enough lived-in monologue to make it unthreateningly… comfy (if a little melodramatic at times). When I was reading this, I never found myself thrilled – never found myself needing to pick the book up, or unable to put it down – but I also never felt reluctance at the thought of reading some more, and often ended up reading a little more than I’d intended. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, bear in mind that I’ve in general not been finding reading easy lately – too many other, more immediately-gratifying distractions! – and that I had little predisposition toward this sort of material.

I generally, I feel it must be said, enjoyed reading this novel.

But do I want to read another? I suppose if someone pressed me to read something and said “it’s like The Wolf Border”, I wouldn’t be reluctant to read it. On the other hand, nor would I be eager. And in general, I worry that, as few distinctive features as the novel has, I might find all the edges worn off into blurs in the memory if I tried reading too many of these.

Most of that criticism, however, is of course, like most of this review to be honest, not about The Wolf Border, but about the genre it represents. It’s unfair to harshly judge a novel simply for not even trying to be what a particular reader wants it to be.

Nonetheless, my slight frustration from the novel comes largely from ways in which I feel it underachieves even by its own standards. Rachel is a genuinely interesting, if uneventful, protagonist to live with; if only she’d met some characters as realistic, as specific, as interesting as her! If only her actions and experiences formed more than the vaguest outline of some sort of a narrative! If only, indeed, more interesting things happened! If only what plot there was were more credible, less reliant on dime-store twists and soap opera moments. If only the poetic prose were a little more distinctive, and a little less cheesy. If only the psychological explorations were a little less pat, a little deeper, a little odder. If only the entire thing were… braver? In the end, it’s not so much that the book is bad, as that it feels (in all ways other than the over-polished prose!) like an early draft, something the author intended to come back to fill in… but never did.

The novel does, then, have some considerable virtues, and does display some legitimate talent… but seems unsure of to what use that talent might be put. And it is at that point that the problem of genre re-enters: because I lack the instinctive appreciation for this sort of story – or, perhaps more accurately, because this sort of story fails to provide most of the things I might instinctively appreciate, promise and competence are not enough. If I liked the basic story enough, it wouldn’t matter to me so much whether it is told as well, and as strikingly, as it could be. [and of course the uncanny valley effect of this genre doesn’t help in that regard]. To be clear, I’m sure I’ve read countless SF&F novels that were less capably written than this, yet that I’ve liked more – not because The Wolf Border is inherently unlikeable (indeed, I suspect that I liked it rather more than I would most novels in its genre), but because it simply doesn’t sing to me – or not at a pitch my ears can hear.

But it’s a perfectly decent novel, and if you’re really into this sort of thing I suppose you might really like it – as, I know, some people do. Even if you’re not really into this sort of thing, you may, as I did, find it a decently enjoyable read. It’s just… if you’re not in general into this sort of thing, I don’t think this is going to be the novel to change your mind. It didn’t, unfortunately, change mine.


Adrenaline: 3/5. Little happens, and the drama never rises beyond ‘ominous’, with the possible exception of the finale. On the other hand, it’s told at a well-judged (if not rapid) pace, with enough foreshadowing and teasing to keep you wanting to read on.

Emotion: 3/5. Rachel goes through some intense feelings, and they’re depicted evocatively. But it’s all a bit melodramatic and by-the-numbers, and I found I was not really fully emotionally engaged – and while the plot may be heightened, the resulting feelings and circumstances are actually not much beyond life’s usual daily panoply.

Thought: 3/5. It’s not a novel that’s likely to challenge anybody, intellectually: it’s very careful to be clear and straightforward; it never surprises, and is never all that complicated. Having said that, it’s not a brainless read either: its introspective (and hence somewhat elliptical) nature requires a bit of patience and a willingness to think psychologically, and to flex one’s empathy.

Beauty: 3/5. An introspective mood and an ostentatiously polished prose style combine to produce some passages of real elegance; unfortunately, these are counterbalanced by moments of unintentional self-parody. In a way, I’m surprised it wasn’t more beautiful, given its aim-for-all-the-buttons millieu of wolves, mountains and regrets.

Craft: 3/5. On the one hand, the writer is clearly competant. She handles Rachel’s introspection very ably. But that just highlights the author’s timidity: you can’t display a mastery of craft if you decline to tackle any dificulties of plot, character or setting; if I sound a little disappointed, it’s because the author showed enough to make me confident she could have handled more challenging material. Having said that, she wasn’t good enough to make the polished prose feel fresh, or to file off the more cringey moments.

Endearingness: 3/5. I enjoyed reading this book (if ‘enjoy’ is the word). I enjoyed being inside Rachel’s head. It’s easy to read; it’s comfy. I can honestly imagine one day deciding to re-read it. But I don’t know if that day will be any time soon. It’s pleasant – but it didn’t grab my heart. It’s too generic; it doesn’t take you anywhere unfamiliar (even speaking as someone not greatly familiar with this genre). It’s hard to love.

Originality: 2/5. Obviously, the constraints of the genre – in setting, in style, in preoccupations and in plot – limit its potential in this respect. But even as Literary Fiction, it felt… safe. Recycled. Not completely, to be sure: Rachel is her own woman. But she’s made up of very familiar parts, in familiar proportions, and everything around her – the stock supporting cast, the two-part TV drama plot – feels drawn from a stock footage library.

Overall: 4/7 –  NOT BAD. It really isn’t. And, as I say everytime I rate a book this way, ‘Not Bad’… isn’t bad. I often sound disappointed about Not Bad books, more than about some Bad books… because they usually have enough promise to make me wish they’d lived up to it. And The Wolf Border is no exception. It’s not likely to change your mind about the genre; it’s not likely to shake your view of the world. But let’s not be so hard on it! It’s a pleasant enough light read (if depression is your thing), and often that’s more than enough. I’m glad I read it.

 

6 thoughts on “The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

  1. areteara says:

    Thank you for not editing. I need lots of distraction right now. I don’t want to write this paper!

  2. Hilary Caws-Elwitt says:

    Another thank you for not editing – I share some of these thoughts but wouldn’t have been able to articulate them nearly as well. And it was a pleasure to read the whole thing!

  3. radiomorpork says:

    This is a marvelous review. Thank you for putting the time and work into writing it! To borrow from your own farm/forest analogy, some reviews are like carefully curated paths through stately gardens: tightly structured with clear highlights; whereas this one is like a ramble through the woods: rougher and wilder but full of unexpected delights.

  4. Thank you! My reviews are indeed not tightly structured – that would be one way to put it, at least…
    [I generally write them off the top of my head, so I don’t always know how they’re going to turn out]

    I should probably start linking to my goodreads reviews, which tend to be more concise and coherent (as they can draw on what emerges from the blog reviews…)

  5. I am always a friend to procrastination!
    (though procrastination is often no friend to me…)

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