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By James Bradley

FICTION
Once There Were Wolves
Charlotte McConaghy

The late Barry Lopez once observed that “the wolf exerts a powerful influence on the human imagination. It takes your stare and turns it back on you.” For Lopez, part of what this reflected gaze revealed was our failure to comprehend that we are not separate from the world, or other species. But it also served as a reminder of the existence of other ways of being, as meaningful in themselves as our own. These failures endure. But in a world now shaped by human activity and defined by hastening ecosystem collapse and extinction, they have acquired a new urgency.

Charlotte McConaghy’s novel is vivid and raw with feeling.

Charlotte McConaghy’s novel is vivid and raw with feeling.Credit:Emma Daniels

Charlotte McConaghy’s new novel, Once There Were Wolves, is animated by this reality. Its narrator, scientist Inti Flynn, is head of a project that aims to reintroduce wolves to Scotland. Like the famous Yellowstone rewilding project, Inti’s project is at one level about environmental repair: wolves control deer numbers, reducing the pressure on seedling trees and allowing the forests to regenerate. But it is also about something deeper: an attempt to regenerate the world, to recover some of its complexity and wonder.

Even before the wolves have been released, Inti’s project meets with opposition from many of the locals, in particular the farmers. For some, this is simply concern about the safety of their flocks, or fear the wolves might prey upon humans. Others, though, see the wolves and the return of the forest as an affront to their way of life. “I want to see glens dotted with sheep and people. People are the lifeblood of a place,” declares one farmer early in the book. This mood darkens even further once the wolves are released, and, almost immediately, one of the wolves is killed by a farmer.

The cover of Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves.

The cover of Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves.

Meanwhile, Inti has problems of her own to deal with. One of these involves her twin sister, Aggie, who is hiding in their rented house, withdrawn and refusing to speak in the aftermath of a violent attack. Another involves Stuart Burns, a critic of the project who is also beating his wife. And a third revolves around her liaison with the local police chief, Duncan McTavish. But when Stuart turns up dead, Inti’s problems begin to converge. Did the wolves kill Stuart? Or did Duncan? And how will she protect the wolves from a divided and suspicious community?

The basic premise of Once There Were Wolves is similar to that of Sarah Hall’s 2015 novel, The Wolf Border, which focused on a project to reintroduce wolves to the north of England. Yet McConaghy’s novel is very much its own creature, and it is intellectually and aesthetically of a piece with her last book, the bestselling The Last Migration (published in the US as Migrations).

Like The Last Migration, Once Were Wolves is underpinned by a lot of rather complicated backstory, involving parents in Australia and Canada, peripatetic childhoods and abusive ex-husbands, as well as subplots about Inti and Aggie’s secret languages of sign and gesture. And, in an echo of the novel’s fascination with twinning and reflections, Inti also has mirror-touch synaesthesia, a condition in which she experiences any sensations she witnesses.

Another writer might be weighed down by such a heady stew of elements, but McConaghy writes with such intensity that the novel never feels awkward or thematically overdetermined; instead, it is vivid and raw with feeling. And as our gaze is reflected back at the human world, what we find is not easy to look at: cruelty, violence, and, perhaps most importantly, a lack of empathy, not just for other species, but for each other.

Yet despite the darkness and pain at the heart of McConaghy’s novel, it is not a bleak book. Instead, it bears within it an argument about the possibility of change. Recognising the presence of other ways of being, of other minds and presences enlarges us, affording us a glimpse of the unknowable. Or as one of McConaghy’s characters reflects towards the end of this gripping and often very moving novel, “when you open your heart to rewilding a landscape, the truth is, you’re opening your heart to rewilding yourself”.

Once There Were Wolves is published by Hamish Hamilton, $32.99.

James Bradley’s most recent novel, Ghost Species, is published by Hamish Hamilton.

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