Human and Animal Predators Together in the Scottish Highlands

By Harriet Lane


Credit...Chelsea Beck

By Charlotte McConaghy

In “Once There Were Wolves,” the follow-up to her 2020 debut novel, “Migrations,” the Australian writer Charlotte McConaghy returns to familiar territory — environmental catastrophe, buried trauma, the wonder of the natural world — in the company of another bold and damaged protagonist. Describing herself as a “bad-tempered Australian who finds it hard to hide contempt and sucks at public speaking,” Inti Flynn is perhaps not the ideal candidate to head up the Cairngorms Wolf Project.

Inti and her crack team of wolf biologists have traveled from Alaska to Scotland with 14 gray wolves, “apex predators” whose release, it is hoped, will restore an ancient balance to the ecosystem of the Highlands: Fewer deer will allow woodlands to spread, boosting carbon capture and biodiversity. (Sarah Hall’s 2015 “The Wolf Border” had a similar premise, but was set in the Lake District.) Alas, the locals aren’t sold on the idea. At a public meeting, enraged by people fretting about the safety of their sheep and children, Inti gets to her feet: “If you truly think wolves are the blood spillers, then you’re blind,” she says. “We do that. We are the people killers, the children killers. We’re the monsters.”

So Inti has a very short fuse, but that’s not surprising because, in addition to the planet and the wolves and a local woman with a violent husband, she’s also worried about her “shadow sister,” her twin, Aggie, once wild and spirited, now mute and barely sentient in their rented cottage along the valley. Aggie has been “unmade” by some horrifying recent event in Anchorage, the details of which are drip fed to the reader along with hints of older traumas from the twins’ family history.

Oh, and Inti also has mirror-touch synesthesia, a neurological condition that means her brain “recreates the sensory experiences of living creatures, of all people and even sometimes animals; if I see it I feel it, and just for a moment I am them, we are one and their pain or pleasure is my own.” A wolf biologist with serious boundary issues, Inti feels the wolves’ suffering and hunger as they do, must shut her eyes before firing tranquilizer darts at them and generally tends more to sentimentality and anthropomorphism than scientific rigor — not that any of this affects her professionalism, of course.

There’s a lot going on here, and that’s before someone meets a nasty end in the forest. Perhaps the wolves are to blame, or perhaps it’s Duncan MacTavish, Inti’s hunky neighbor, who says things like, “You blow mighty hot and cold, wolf girl,” and with whom she is soon having intense mirror-touch sex. No one seems to mind that Duncan, as well as being a prime suspect in the forest death, is also the police chief leading the investigation.

Quite early on, I began to worry that McConaghy wasn’t entirely in control of her material. An eco-thriller about rewilding must deliver on setting and atmosphere, but once Inti ventures out of the woods she finds herself in a strange and unconvincing Scotland where someone wearing a “traditional tartan kilt” might talk about cops and prize mustangs, and go to a pub to order a jug of beer that is brought to the table by a waitress. Midges are mentioned only twice.

Though this small rural community turns out to be steeped in brutal secrets, much of the plot and characterization seems rushed and scrappy, a vehicle for environmental messaging. You feel the grinding of gears when Inti asks, “What else is being done to rewild Scotland?” This is a heartfelt and earnest novel — in every chapter, there’s evidence of a writer straining for the cathedral cadence, that elegiac note of aching significance — but sincerity doesn’t guarantee a satisfying read.