by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
I spoke about Charlotte McConaghy's Once There Were Wolves (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) in episode 237. This one is my pick for the book about nature and the environment category on the 2022 reading challenge. This was such an impactful read for me, and I wanted to share a review of it as well (so that I can convince those of you who haven't read it yet to give it a try!).
This is the story of two sisters, Inti and Aggie. The novel is the uncovering of their past and what led them to where they are in a remote cabin in the Scottish highlands. Inti is a wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves, and she and her team are working to integrate wolves back into an area where they have long been absent. Aggie's role is mysterious in the novel in many ways, but it's clear that Inti takes care of her sister and that they have had some shared trauma prior to their current situation. Inti has a rare form of synesthesia called mirror-touch synesthesia, where when she sees a person or animal being touched, she actually feels what feel pass through her as if it were her own sensation. This affects the work that she does with the wolves and heightens her awareness of them.
In this story, Inti struggles to get the local villagers to understand why wolves, as apex predators, need to be reintroduced into the ecosystem. Many of the local villagers are farmers, and the last thing they want to worry about is having more predators who could harm their livestock. However, Inti wants to show them that as people who rely on the environment for their livelihood, they are also deeply invested in the health of the ecosystem that surrounds them. Inti finds that the community wants to blame the introduction of wolves for any and all problems that they face, but the truth is far more complex.
“If you truly think wolves are the blood spillers, then you're blind...We do that. We are the people killers, the children killers. We're the monsters.”
In addition to gorgeous prose and fascinating accounts of the wolves in nature, this novel is very much a focus on the study of humans. The role of domestic violence hangs heavy within the threads of this beautiful novel, and its specter impacts many of the characters in different ways and colors their actions.
“A man’s anger, his violence, is no one’s responsibility but his own.”
Inti finds herself increasingly entangled with the people of the town, and her relationships grow more complex. Tensions rise as her team and the wolves they brought in are made more and more unwelcome by the increasingly hostile townspeople.
This is a book that continually surprised me. It has elements of a mystery and of a thriller, but it is also deeply contemplative about nature and the role of humans. I absolutely loved it and was surprised and fascinated by each turn McConaghy took in the narrative.
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