Once There Were Wolves
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books
Sydney-based Charlotte McConaghy is one of the most exciting and accomplished writers of literary fiction in Australia today. She weaves skilful storytelling with a fiery passion to convey the urgent environmental issues of the moment – and yet never resorts to being didactic.
McConaghy’s international bestseller Migrations has been translated into over 20 languages and Claire Foy (The Crown) has been cast to star in its film adaptation. Once There Were Wolves looks set to follow a similar trajectory.
Where Migrations featured Franny, a reckless and driven environmentalist following “the last of the birds”, in Once There Were Wolves we meet Inti, a biologist, who is compelled to reintroduce 14 grey wolves back into the Scottish Highlands by her belief that “rewilding” the area will save the dying forest and restore the lost ecosystem.
Inti Flynn has mirror-touch synaesthesia: a rare syndrome in which her brain causes her body to feel the sensations she’s sees. Inti’s twin sister Aggie, who has accompanied her to Scotland and who used to be Inti’s main defender, has stopped speaking.
The pair encountered a quirky upbringing (in the forests of British Columbia with their survivalist father, and in Sydney with their straight talking, crime writing mother), and have come through challenging personal circumstances with scars that make Inti prickly and suspicious. These traits are not helpful in convincing the townsfolk that the wolf project is not destined to destroy their farms and livelihoods. Inti and Aggie are also impossible to tell apart which yields some just-on-the-edge-of-believable plot twists.
Inti falls into a relationship of sorts with Duncan, the town’s policeman, who walks a challenging line in maintaining law and order in the region. When a wife abuser is reported missing and presumed dead people blame the wolves, but Inti is quick to defend them. Tensions in the town escalate and it is not certain they will be resolved without further bloodshed.
While struggling with how not to spook the wolves, Inti also ponders what it would mean if humans did not assume dominion over other creatures, at times referring back to her father’s thoughts on the issue.
“My father used to say the world turned wrong when we started separating ourselves from the wild, when we stopped being one with the rest of nature, and sat apart. He said we might survive this mistake if we found a way to rewild ourselves. But I don’t know how to do that when our existence frightens the creatures we must reconnect with.
“I would give anything not to frighten them; it makes me so sad. And yet the truth is that their fear of us keeps them safe from us.”
If you care about the environment and stories that can convey the urgency of our predicament, read Once There Were Wolves then circle back to read Migrations. You won’t regret it.
I am itching to see what kind of wild and astonishing creature McConaghy will create next.