Author Charlotte McConaghy gave me one of my favourite reads of last year, Migrations, and her second novel Once There Were Wolves (Penguin Random House 2021) is another fantastic, well-written, exquisite story about the relationships between people, and between humans and the natural world, featuring a mysterious crime or two, and at the heart of the narrative, McConaghy’s concerns and explorations of environmental issues including climate change and species extinction.
This book is a journey of rewilding – a process whereby creatures (often apex predators) are reintroduced to areas or even countries where they have been previously hunted to extinction, in order to slowly return the habitat to its natural balance. Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland to lead a team of experts who are reintroducing fourteen grey wolves into the remote Scottish Highlands. It is a delicate exercise – the wolves must be looked after but also acclimatised to their new environment and encouraged to roam free, to mate and to form packs and of course to hunt the deer that are destabilising the forests. But at the same time, the local farmers must fence and protect their sheep and livestock and learn to live with this new threat. The wolves are released and begin to thrive, but when a farmer is found dead, the locals are keen to blame the wolves, and are hungry for swift justice, threatening to take matters into their own hands. Inti is desperate to save the creatures she loves but must also be pragmatic about their interactions with local stock and wildlife.
Complicating matters is Inti’s sister Aggie, who has travelled with her. Aggie has been broken by some past trauma, and it is almost a full-time job for Inti to care for her sister and try to bring her back into the world. And when Inti falls for a local man, the plot becomes even more complicated. She has no room in her life for love, especially not a relationship this complicated.
Inti and her team make plenty of enemies and even their new friends are wary of this reintroduction program and the risks it presents. As the story becomes more complex, and even Inti doesn’t know the truth, she is challenged in so many ways – her belief system, her loyalties and her hopes. And hiding deep within, her anger and revenge for what has gone before.
This is an extremely well-paced, tight and taut story with so many layers. There are unsolved crimes, violence, emotional abuse, environmental issues, friendship, romance, and the necessity for characters – particularly Inti – to look deep inside herself to find the source of her own childhood trauma, the regrets about how she has handled certain situations in her life, her dreams of a rewilding and her love of wolves, and her complex relationship with her sister. Once There Were Wolves is a story of a woman obsessed with saving the animals she loves. In the process, she may need to save herself.
The dialogue is pitch-perfect, the plot is complex and tightly woven, the characters are rich and interesting and authentic, the setting is wild and evocative and the tension is thrilling. This is a wonderful book that will stay with me for many reasons, not the least of which is the magnificent notion of wild wolves – their power, their cunning, their howling, their knowing eyes, their muscle memory, their instincts and their habits – which are all so beautifully rendered and represented.