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

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Casting the Brexit movie that is definitely real and will totally happen

Details are yet unclear as to whether The Bad Boys of Brexit will be gracing our screens, or just Farage's vivid imagination.

Hollywood is planning to take on the farcical antics of Nigel Farage et al during the UK referendum, according to rumours (some suspect planted by a starstruck Brexiteer). 

Details are yet unclear as to whether The Bad Boys of Brexit will be gracing our big or small screens, a DVD, or just Farage's vivid imagination, but either way here are our picks for casting the Hollywood adaptation.

Nigel Farage: Jim Carrey

The 2018 return of Alan Partridge as "the voice of hard Brexit" makes Steve Coogan the obvious choice. Yet Carrey's portrayal of the laughable yet pure evil Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events makes him a serious contender for this role. 

Boris Johnson: Gerard Depardieu

Stick a blonde wig on him and the French acting royalty is almost the spitting image of our own European aristocrat. He has also evidently already mastered the look of pure shock necessary for the final scene of the movie - in which the Leave campaign is victorious.

Arron Banks: Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais not only resembles Ukip donor Arron Banks, but has a signature shifty face perfect for the scene where the other Brexiteers ask him what is the actual plan. 

Gerry Gunster: Anthony Lapaglia

The Bad Boys of Brexit will reportedly be told from the perspective of the US strategist turned Brexit referendum expert Gerry Gunster. Thanks to recurring roles in both the comedy stalwart Frasier, and the US crime drama Without a Trace, Anthony Lapaglia is versatile enough to do funny as well as serious, a perfect mix for a story that lurches from tragedy to farce. Also, they have the same cunning eyes.

Douglas Carswell: Mark Gatiss

The resemblance is uncanny.

David Cameron: Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott is widely known for his portrayal of Moriarty in Sherlock, where he indulges in elaborate, but nationally destructive strategy games. The actor also excels in a look of misplaced confidence that David Cameron wore all the way up to the referendum. Not to mention, his forehead is just as shiny. He'll have to drink a lot of Bollinger to gain that Cameron-esque puppy fat though. 

Kate Hoey: Judi Dench

Although this casting would ruin the image of the much beloved national treasure that is Judi Dench, if anyone can pull off being the face of Labour Leave, the incredible actress can.