Review: Charlotte McConaghy’s novel “Once Upon a Time There were Wolves”
On the bookshelf
Once upon a time there were wolves
By Charlotte McConaghy
Iron: 272 pages, $ 28
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Lupus est tibi visus, Pliny the Elder wrote in its Natural History. “You saw a wolf; that is why you are silent. The loss of language following such encounters underlies much of Charlotte McConaghy’s flamboyant new novel, “Once upon a time there were wolves. “
The character initially deprived of speech is Aggie. She and her twin sister, Inti, arrived in the Scottish Highlands as part of a rewilding program to introduce 14 gray wolves to its rugged surroundings. Inti is a biologist, and Aggie – as a result of trauma gradually revealed – has stopped speaking and is almost catatonic on some days. Inti is his guardian, a role reversal of childhood; growing up, Aggie had been her sister’s protector.
Inti has a gift, or a neurological disorder, depending on your point of view: an excess of empathy allowing him to feel the emotions of a creature as if it is itself under his skin. She became aware of its full effects at the age of 8 while living in the woods of British Columbia. As her father dressed a freshly killed rabbit, Inti collapsed, convinced that she had been eviscerated.
“I always knew there was something different about me,” says Inti, “but it was the day I first recognized that it was dangerous. It was also daytime, as I stumbled out of the shed in a long purple twilight, that I looked at the edge of the trees and saw my first wolf, and he saw me.
Their father told the daughters that compassion is the best thing to learn, that the ability to understand the pain of others would heal the world. But one day, when they are teenagers, he enters the forest and never returns. They learn different lessons from their mother, a detective investigating violent crimes in Australia. “She had no ocean of kindness in her, no forgiveness,” Inti thinks. “She had a different knowledge of what people do to each other. I turned away from it. It was tough and hard and it wasn’t the instincts I was born with…[but] Mom was right… I am embarrassed, and now I have had enough, I have no more forgiveness.
“MigrationsMcConaghy’s previous novel, and her beginnings as a literary author, followed a mysterious woman in search of the last terns in a world near mass extinction. In both novels, McConaghy explores a central dilemma of the Anthropocene era: how to persuade people that they should worry about the fate of animals. Like her has already noted, a common response to climate change is apathy born of powerlessness. Perhaps, she suggests, fiction can do what science cannot: engender empathy and, subsequently, action. In “Wolves,” she does this by giving Inti the power to sense what wolves are doing and to notice how these are like human feelings.
McConaghy’s new novel braids tales that include the current wolf project, the story of the father’s disappearance, a previous love affair, and the twins’ life with their mother. This warp and weft reveal the overlapping behavioral patterns of humans and wolves, as well as the limitations of language. Many of us cling to the idea that changing our minds is simply a matter of explaining your point of view, that if we can just find the correct words, correct behavior will follow. (Writers are particularly sensitive to this illusion.)
Inti discovers that his supernatural empathy is not enough to help him convince a dispersed community of Scottish sheep herders that wolves pose no threat to their flocks or children. Despite assurances of close monitoring and immediate compensation for any stock lost to predation, she finds their mistrust paramount, their beliefs impenetrable to scientific knowledge and evidence.
Inti also discovers that this primitive hatred is transferable – that threats to kill wolves, made by physically dominant men, can also endanger it. “There are languages without words and violence is one of them,” she observes.
McConaghy also explores predatory behavior and its role in abuse. Between observations of the lupine’s behavior, the mother’s inquiries into domestic violence, and the daughter’s own memories of violence, McConaghy involves points of connection. In Inti’s visceral experiences, we begin to understand how our animal instincts can even be of service to human evil – and conversely how human animals can be even the most vicious.
Inti explains to Duncan, his sweetheart, how to watch a pack hunting for prey in terms reminiscent of sexual predation: “They are patient. They spend days following a herd and observing its deer. They choose the weaker animals. The slowest. They look at those in particular and they learn their features, their personalities. They will know a deer so well by the time they attack that they can predict what will happen. They won’t waste energy. They will wait to know without a doubt that they can kill.
Inti’s failure, his inability to separate his feelings from those of wolves, will (as pride often does) lead to tragedy. Despite his ability to sense what others are feeling, his anger bypasses his ability to read his own kind.
While McConaghy presents intelligent perspectives on the wisdom of rewilding, the book tackles deeper questions of epistemology. Understanding how we know the things we know is under serious pressure in a world facing climate change and the need to adapt to what was previously unthinkable. Despite the evidence that we make our world inhospitable to human life, we still find ourselves arguing over basic reality. We are confronted every day with the limits of language. And as McConaghy shows in this mind-boggling book, the limits of language lead us to the limits of empathy.
Berry writes for a number of posts and tweets @BerryFLW.