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.

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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. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

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