Civil savages? Rachel Caine’s “god of all dogs”. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Where the wild things are: fiction that proves we're closer to nature than we think

Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time and Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border take us to the brink of the anthropocene.

The Wolf Border
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 435pp, £17.99

At Hawthorn Time
Melissa Harrison
Bloomsbury Circus, 279pp, £16.99

If only the line between the wild and the tame could be cleanly drawn. Rachel Caine, the protagonist of Sarah Hall’s compelling new novel, imagines that possibility. “She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins.” This would be “the wolf border” from which her tale takes its title, a clear division between us and them. But as both Hall’s novel and Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time eloquently demonstrate, in the 21st century that boundary is blurred and treacherous.

Hall’s novel is something of an adventure story. Caine is a Cumbrian-born wildlife biologist; when the book begins she has been living in the United States on an Idaho reservation, monitoring the wolves that live there. She has been fascinated by them since she was a child, and first caught sight of one kept in a penned enclosure. “Long nose, the black tip twitching, short mane. A dog before dogs were invented. The god of all dogs.” She gives up the reservation life – and the man who doesn’t know he’s the father of her unborn child – when Thomas Pennington, the 11th Earl of Annerdale and one of the richest men in England, hires her to help reintroduce wolves to this island.

Harrison’s novel is much more of a chamber piece, a sequence of interleaved voices focused on a rural town called Lodeshill, somewhere towards the north of England. There’s Jack – an anonymous, fairy-tale name – a rural wanderer at odds with modernity, who lives off the land, finding occasional work, when he’s not being locked up for trespass. Jamie is a local boy, a young man born into a place where the best jobs to be found are in a giant, faceless warehouse. Howard and Kitty are incomers, Londoners; she wanted to come to Lodeshill, he didn’t. Both novels are about the uneasy collision between the rural and the urban, wealth and poverty, old and new.

It’s not news that writing about the natural world – and the way it chafes against the man-made – is having a moment in the spotlight. Not so long ago, in these pages, Philip Hoare wrote about “new nature writing” (noting that this is not a term much loved by the writers, but rather one imposed by publishers, who have to find a category for everything, poor things). In his essay, Hoare pointed out: “Most of us live in suburbia, a nowhere place, and so we send surrogate explorers – writers, artists, film-makers – to seek a reconnection that might never have been there in the first place.” He discussed, for the most part, non-fiction: books such as Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is for Hawk and Robert Macfarlane’s much-lauded Landmarks. But fiction, too, has its role to play in beating the bounds of the land, and these two novels are gripping examples of the trend.

Hall’s is the more overtly political. In Haweswater, The Electric Michelangelo and the futuristic fable The Carhullan Army, she has proved herself adept at moving between different registers and time periods; The Wolf Border is set in a just-alternate present where there is a Scottish referendum going on; only that the result is the opposite of how real Scots’ votes were cast last year. This could make the book seem past its sell-by date but Hall doesn’t make a meal of her alt-referendum; it’s a useful plot device on which her novel hinges in its gripping last third.

Rachel, through whose eyes we see this world, is well drawn: a woman in control of her destiny, chasing a changing idea of freedom and wondering what sacrifices must be made for her dream. But Thomas Pennington, her lordly employer, conforms a little too closely to the lines of the wealthy-do-gooding-ne’er-do-well-with-a-tragic-past trope. He never quite comes alive. And Hall’s language, though lovely, could have done with a keener editor’s eye: it can slide past poetry into excess. (“Her collarbones are like vestigial fins, her hair slicks down her back as she surfaces, aesthetic, Piscean.”)

Harrison’s debut novel, Clay, found a wilderness in the heart of a city: in Lodeshill, the urban encroaches on the rural. A starling learns to mimic a car alarm perfectly; a butterfly is “fooled” into laying its eggs on the green mesh of a tennis net, “and here and there they remained, a whitish crust like hundreds of tiny barnacles”. The countryside has become a place of “signposted walks and intelligible views”.

This is never heavy-handed: the clarity of her characters, their difficult appeal, keeps the book from feeling schematic. Howard and Kitty’s marriage, in particular, is exceptionally realised; they are two people floundering in a new place, in a relationship in which much has been hidden for many years. Howard is obsessed with restoring old radios, an echo of the static in his life; Kitty is a painter who hopes she’ll find a bucolic paradise in Lodeshill but discovers she’s drawn to painting the junk that hides in the greenery, the bases of powerlines, the synthetic gleam of plastic bottles. And this novel comes with a soundtrack, too – two evocative tunes uploaded to SoundCloud by Caught by the River, an online forum “for all things outdoors” in which Harrison plays a part.

Fifteen years ago the Dutch chemist and 1995 Nobel Prizewinner Paul Crutzen coined the term “anthropocene” to describe the new geological era in which we find ourselves: the first one in which human beings have had a major, ongoing impact on life on earth. In these novels, that impact is distilled through individual voices and individual lives: and is all the more powerfully felt for it.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Show Hide image

Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser