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Tuesday, 29 December 2015
This is the fourth book I have read by Sarah Hall (Haweswater, Electric Michaelangelo, and Carhullan Army) and I approached it with a sense of eager anticipation. It was good but, for me, not as good as it promised to be; there was a definite sense of feeling a bit let down when I got to the end. I have been reflecting on why I felt the way I did and have come to the conclusion that the book was either too long or too short - it should either have been pared down to a short novel focussing on the central female character, the wolves, and the place; or it should have been developed over a couple of hundred more pages to do justice to the complex issues raised and to develop the cast of minor characters.
The 'heroine' Rachel comes from a troubled background in Cumbria and has made a success of her life as an expert on wolves in spite of carrying a considerable burden of guilt. She is working in Idaho when the novel opens but circumstances (mainly getting pregnant) prompt her to leave and return to her home area. There she begins to rebuild a relationship with a troubled younger brother, has a baby, and starts a new relationship, as well as running a project to re-introduce wolves on a private estate. The novel follows her through a year or so of trials and tribulations culminating in an engineered (not by Rachel) escape of the wolves and the end of the project.
Lots of issues raised along the way - how responsible are we for our parents; is suicide a legitimate course of action; class and privilege; should a woman tell the father of her child that she has become pregnant and given birth; what counts as freedom anyway ....? Then there are the characters. Rachel is I think an authentic voice, as his her new 'boyfriend' Alexander and, to a large extent her brother Lawrence. But the earl who commissions the wolf project is a caricature, as is his daughter. Then there is an enigmatic project assistant, an irascible estate manager and his dying wife, and the earl's son who is undergoing some sort of rejection crisis - none of these is developed in any satisfying way and I could not see what they added to the novel, except perhaps a bit of colour. But why populate a novel with potentially interesting characters who could help the reader to better understand the central character, and then do nothing with them? Similarly at one point the project starts to receive unsettling anonymous e-mails and this reader thought this was plot development leading to some significant event, but they came to nothing - so why introduce them at all?
In amongst all this Hall writes beautifully about the thoughts and feelings of her central character, and is superb in describing the changing seasons, the place and the animals. Her prose is sparse, sharp and often visceral. The dialogue between the main characters is very believable as are their responses. So, the book is well worth reading, but it could, in my view, have been so much better.