Inti Flynn arrives in the Scottish Highlands with fourteen grey wolves, a traumatised sister and fierce tenacity.
As a biologist, she knows the animals are the best hope for rewilding the ruined landscape and she cares little for local opposition. As a sister, she hopes the remote project will offer her twin, Aggie, a chance to heal after the horrific event that drove them both out of Alaska.
But violence dogs their footsteps and one night Inti stumbles over the body of a farmer. Unable to accept that her wolves could be responsible, she makes a reckless decision to protect them. But if the wolves didn’t make the kill, who then did? And can she trust the man she is beginning to love when he becomes the main suspect?
Length: 288 pages (print version)
Publication date: 2022
Content warnings: domestic violence, suicide, animal death
I went into Once There Were Wolves with very little knowledge about the storyline or characters. I don’t think I had read the blurb since I requested it from NetGalley, which was a few months prior to actually picking the book up. For me, this helped with my enjoyment of the story. It’s one of those books where I think the blurb actually gives too much of the plot away. So if you’re going to pick the book up, leave it a few months to forget what you read in the blurb.
Once There Were Wolves is told in the first person, from the perspective of Inti Flynn, a young woman determined to see the return of wolves to the Scottish Highlands. She’s a really interesting character because she has a condition called mirror-touch synaesthesia. This is a rare condition that means she can literally feel what others are feeling. So if a person she is looking at runs their finger over their cheek, she will feel it as if the finger is on her cheek. It’s not a condition I’d ever heard of before, and I had to check it was real. It is, but quite rare. From what I’ve read in news sources, such as here, the way McConaghy describes the condition is realistic. I love the feeling it brings to the story. It lends the narrative an air of magic – even though it’s not magic at all.
The atmosphere in this book is one of the things I really love about it. The descriptive, slightly lyrical writing style creates a quiet and intense atmosphere. The passion Inti feels for the wolves comes through in the writing – it consumes her thoughts and so drives the narrative. There’s also a sad, kind of quiet anger that permeates the book. Against the backdrop of the debate around the future of the environment is another storyline and theme: the safety of women and the dangers men can represent to them. By placing these issues side by side in this book McConaghy does suggest that they are bound together. Both require urgent attention. The book highlights the idea of conflict between humanity and nature in the book in the same way that she highlights the conflict between women and men.
I felt that the romantic relationship in Once There Were Wolves let the rest of the book down. The relationship itself, once established, was believable and interesting. But the period where the characters got to know each other felt rushed. I felt that it would have benefited from more development to really allow the reader to see and feel Inti falling for this person.
Once There Were Wolves is a beautifully written book about the environmental crisis, the conflict between humanity and nature, as well as conflicts between men and women. It is very much a book of the contemporary moment, and will stick with me for a long time.