Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

‘When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.’

This opening line grabbed my attention and drew me into a novel that I could not escape from. Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie arrive in the remote Scottish Highlands. Inti hopes to successfully reintroduce wolves into the landscape, to rewild it, to try to arrest and reverse some of the damage done when wolves became extinct there. Inti know that she and the team of biologists she leads will have an uphill battle: the farmers are mistrustful and expect the wolves to kill their livestock. But re-establishing wolf packs is only part of the reason Inti and Aggie have moved to Scotland.

The story unfolds, between past and present. We learn that Inti and Aggie’s father was a naturalist who taught them to appreciate nature and who lived a separate life from their mother, a detective, who taught them that humans are the most dangerous predator. The connection between the twins is amplified by Inti’s mirror touch synaesthesia, which means that she can feel the pain experienced by others.

The wolves, tracked by Inti’s team, settle into their new environment remarkably well and Inti starts to relax. She becomes close to one of the villagers, a man who has his own past, and life becomes complicated when Inti finds a murdered farmer. Afraid that this killing will be blamed on one of the wolves, Inti buries the body.

This novel is part paean to nature, part murder mystery and part love story with an accompanying undercurrent of violence. Gradually we learn more about the sisters’ lives in Alaska and the events that have made Aggie unwell and driven her to silence. For me, the best part of this novel was the description of the behaviour of the wolves, knowing that there is currently a movement to reintroduce wolves into Scotland. I was less comfortable with aspects of Inti and Aggie’s stories but could appreciate how their past has shaped their present. I finished the novel hoping that both the wolves and the sisters could thrive and find their own space.

A fierce, violent, and thought-provoking novel addressing some important issues.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith