Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy: A review

 

Once there were wolves in Scotland but no more.  The official record shows that the last one was killed in 1680, although there are some reports that a few remained up until the 19th century. In her new novel though, Charlotte McConaghy imagines a project of reintroducing wolves in Scotland and the kinds of reactions and problems that might result.

Heading up the fictional Cairngorms Wolf Project is Inti Flynn who describes herself as a "bad-tempered Australian who finds it hard to hide contempt and sucks at public speaking." Maybe not the ideal personality for a project dependent upon establishing good public relations. Inti had previously worked with wolves in Alaska where she had assembled her team of wolf biologists who will help her with Cairngorms. The biologists travel to Scotland along with the fourteen Alaskan gray wolves they have trapped to be released in Scotland.

Wolves are apex predators and as such the biologists hope their release will help to control the deer population and restore a balance to the ecosystem of the Highlands. If the overgrazing deer are thinned out then the woodlands will be allowed to spread which in turn will boost carbon capture and biodiversity. As it happens, the human population of the area where the wolves will be released is composed mostly of sheep farmers who are not sanguine about the release of these apex predators that they view as a threat to their sheep. One of Inti's challenges is to win these people over. It's a challenge that she is very bad at meeting because of her temper and her impatience with people in general.

As we learn more about Inti, we learn that she herself is a very damaged person, having endured traumas from her family history. Inti is an identical twin and her sister who now shares a cottage with her has been physically and psychologically damaged by an abusive husband to the point where she has stopped speaking and often seems unaware of what is happening. Inti is understandably protective of her sister. 

And then there is this weird neurological condition that Inti has; it's something called mirror-touch synesthesia which means that she feels the sensory experiences of other humans and even some animals. If she sees them, she feels them. That can be a serious handicap for a biologist working with wolves because she can feel their pain. 

In time, the biologists release the wolves, all of whom wear transmitters so they can be tracked. All does not go smoothly. One of the wolves is shot by a farmer who is convinced the animal is threatening his sheep. Then a man is killed in the forest and it appears he might have been killed by wolves. Inti is frantic to protect her wolves from the retribution of the locals. In this, she has a sort of ally in the police chief Duncan MacTavish with whom she is soon having an affair.

There is a lot to process in this plot. I haven't begun to cover all of its points. One gets the feeling that the writer is not entirely in control of it. It sort of meanders all over the place as she attempts to tie up all the loose ends in the story and there were bits that just seemed totally unbelievable and unnecessary to me. What started out as an atmospheric eco-thriller about rewilding goes off the rails a bit and the ending seemed forced and rushed. After loving McConaghy's previous book, Migrations, my expectations for this one were extraordinarily high, and although I did enjoy much of it, it didn't quite deliver the satisfying read I had anticipated.

My rating 4 of 5 stars 

Comments

  1. i read somewhere that second novels are often a disappointment for some reason... maybe the next one will be better?

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    1. McConaghy is such a good and creative writer, I feel sure she has many more good novels in her. This one missed the mark a bit but it was a good try.

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  2. I just finished this novel too ... and I agree with your assessment that it goes off the rails a bit and got a bit crazy at the end. It's too bad b/c the premise was good without making the unnecessary parts. There's a lot of trauma. I liked Migrations better, but I still like wolves.

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    1. Right. I felt as if she kept adding on elements to make it more complicated and she should have just stuck with telling the story of the introduction of the wolves and the aftermath.

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  3. Too bad this doesn't quite meet expectations. "Migrations" was wonderful.

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    1. Migrationswas my favorite book from last year which is why I expected so much from this one. But perhaps I was being a bit unfair to the writer - they can't all be a Migrations.

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  4. Sounds interesting, if uneven. I haven't read Migrations, but it appears that is one I should add to the list.

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    1. The basic idea of the reintroduction of the wolves was wonderful and I wish she had stuck a little more closely to that story without adding unnecessary elements. If you read it, I'll be interested in your thoughts.

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  5. It's never good when a story starts to meander at the end.

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    1. It certainly caused me to remove one of the stars I would otherwise have given it.

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  6. I've seen this one around quite a bit lately. Plus it's set in Scotland, so winner winner chicken dinner. Great review!

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    1. I have a prejudice for books set in Scotland and the descriptions of the setting in this one were among my favorite parts of the story.

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    2. I love the Highlands so much, I would probably like this book very much. I could wander up and down the whole of Scotland and across and back again and it would never be enough. It's my favorite country in the whole world.

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  7. I have this book sitting on my nightstand. I, too, loved Migrations, and because debut authors generally get two-book deals with the stronger of the two released first, I was worried this book might not be as well written. It sounds like it meanders a bit, but I think I can still move forward with thisone.

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  8. Even though it sounds as if this one doesn't work all the way through to the end, I do find the subject to be an intriguing one. It fits right in with the nonfiction title about the self-awareness of certain species, Beyond Words, that I'm reading right now. I'll have to take a look at this one. But...one of things I find most irritating in a novel of much length is a rushed ending after I've invested hours and hours in the set-up. That's the only thing that's making me a little cautious about this one.

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    1. I think I would recommend the book to you, Sam. In spite of some weaknesses, I believe you might enjoy it.

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  9. Hi Dorothy, I hadn't realized you read/reviewed this (missed the post) but, I've bookmarked it so I can read it after I finish, I am about 40% done right now but reading another book in between plus, I read to begin a book group read soon so it may be a few days or more.

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