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Review: As species vanish, a new novel asks: Can ‘re-wilding’ help civilize humans?

Author Charlotte McConaghy on the coast of Iceland, 2015. Her latest novel is "Once There Were Wolves."
(Charlotte McConaghy)

On the Shelf

Once There Were Wolves

By Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron: 272 pages, $28

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Lupus est tibi visus, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History. “You have seen a wolf; therefore you are silent.” The loss of language in the wake of such encounters underlies much of Charlotte McConaghy’s blazing new novel, “Once There Were Wolves.”

The character initially deprived of speech is Aggie. She and her twin sister, Inti, have arrived in the Scottish Highlands as part of a rewilding program to introduce 14 gray wolves into its rugged environment. Inti is a biologist, and Aggie — as the result of a trauma gradually revealed — has stopped speaking and on certain days is nearly catatonic. Inti is her caretaker, a reversal of childhood roles; growing up, Aggie had been her sister’s protector.

Inti has a gift, or a neurological disorder, depending on your perspective: an excess of empathy allowing her to feel a creature’s emotions as if she herself were under its skin. She became aware of its full effects at age 8 while living in the woods of British Columbia. As her father dressed a freshly killed rabbit, Inti collapsed, convinced she had been eviscerated.

“I had always known there was something different about me,” Inti says, “but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.”

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Their father tells the girls that compassion is the greatest thing to learn, that the ability to understand another’s pain would heal the world. But one day when they are teens, he walks into the forest and never returns. They learn different lessons from their mother, a detective investigating violent crimes in Australia. “She had no kindred ocean of kindness inside her, no forgiveness,” Inti thinks. “She had a different knowledge of what people do to each other. I shied from it. It felt rough and hard and those were not the instincts I was born with …[but] Mum was right … I am embarrassed, and now I have had enough, I have no forgiveness left.”

Australian author Charlotte McConaghy brings ‘Migrations’ to the L.A. Times Book Club Feb. 24.

Migrations,” McConaghy’s previous novel and her debut as a literary author, followed a mysterious woman in search of the last terns in a near-future world of mass extinction. In both novels, McConaghy explores a core dilemma of the Anthropocene era: how to persuade people they should care about the fate of animals. As she has previously noted, a common response to climate change is an apathy born of helplessness. Perhaps, she implies, fiction can do what science cannot: engender empathy and, subsequently, action. In “Wolves,” she does this by giving Inti the power to feel what wolves do and to notice how closely these resemble human feelings.

"Once There Were Wolves," by Charlotte McConaghy
(Flatiron Books)

McConaghy’s new novel braids narratives that include the present wolf project, the story of the father’s disappearance, an earlier romance and the twins’ life with their mother. Revealed in this warp and weft is the overlap in the behavioral patterns of humans and wolves, as well as the limits of language. Many of us cling to the idea that changing another’s mind 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 especially susceptible to this delusion.)

Inti discovers that her preternatural empathy is not enough to help her convince a scattered community of Scottish sheep farmers that wolves pose no threat to their flocks or their children. Despite assurances of close monitoring and immediate compensation for any stock lost to predation, she finds that their distrust is primal, their beliefs impenetrable to scientific knowledge and evidence.

Inti also discovers that this primal hatred is transferable — that threats to kill the wolves, delivered by physically dominant men, can put her at risk as well. “There are languages without words and violence is one of them,” she observes.

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McConaghy also explores predatory behavior and its role in abuse. Between observations of lupine behavior, the mother’s investigations of domestic abuse and the daughter’s own memories of violence, McConaghy implies points of connection. In Inti’s visceral experiences, we begin to understand how animal our instincts can be even in the service of human evil — and conversely how human animals can be even at their most vicious.

Inti explains to Duncan, her love interest, how to observe a pack hunting prey in terms reminiscent of sexual predation: “They’re patient. They spend days following a herd and watching its deer. They pick the weaker animals. The slower ones. They watch those in particular and they learn their traits, 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’ll wait until they know without doubt that they can kill.”

Inti’s flaw, her inability to separate her feelings from those of the wolves, will lead (as hubris often does) to tragedy. Despite her ability to feel what others feel, her anger short-circuits her ability to read her own species.

While McConaghy presents intelligent perspectives on the wisdom of rewilding, the book goes into deeper questions of epistemology. The understanding of how we know the things we know is under serious pressure in a world confronted by climate change and the need to adapt to the previously unthinkable. Despite evidence that we are making our world inhospitable to human life, we find ourselves still arguing over basic reality. We are confronted by the limits of language every day. And as McConaghy shows in this stunning book, the limits of language lead us to the limits of empathy.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

Lydia Millet, whose latest novel, “A Children’s Bible,” tackled climate change, reads new fiction on climate and argues against calling it a genre.


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