Author: Charlotte McConaghy
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)
It’s fitting that Once There Were Wolves is my last post of 2021 because (unless I happen to read a really good book in late December) it was my favourite book of the whole year! I read Migrations last year and really liked it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Once There Were Wolves. I wasn’t sure if maybe McConaghy was a one-trick pony, but this book has firmly cemented her as an auto-buy author in my books!
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it and I have a feeling it’s going to be my favourite read of 2021. I can definitely see how this book might not be for everyone, and I could see Migrations being the more universally accepted book of the two, but I loved everything about this book and actually preferred it.
Once There Were Wolves is set predominantly in Scotland and is about the expedition 30-year old Inti Flynn is leading to re-introduce wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Wolf territory has been shrinking over time and a (real) project to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 was hugely successful. The prey had been taking over the park and without predators to keep them in check, were over-eating the flora and causing erosion at streams and water sources. The wolves completely changed the landscape of the park, breathing new life into the wilderness and bringing a balance to the ecosystem.
Inti’s childhood was split between Australia and the wilds of British Columbia and she travels to Scotland with her twin sister, with whom she is very close. Unfortunately, she is not welcomed by the farmers in Scotland and receives a cold reception and opposition to her work. Nevertheless, she finds some allies and is determined that her project be a success. But when a villager turns up dead and the townspeople suspect the wolves, Inti makes some questionable choices.
So the plot is pretty straightforward, but like most of my favourite books, this is not a plot driven novel. The key word when talking about this book is atmosphere. Charlotte McConaghy is a talented wordsmith, but part of what makes her novels so compelling is her ability to create a very strong sense of setting and atmosphere. The loneliness and wild of the highlands seeps from every scene and creates this overarching feeling of great loss and sadness. It maybe sounds a bit depressing, but it’s also enthralling. It’s not a fast paced story and yet I was totally invested in Inti’s project and her past.
McConaghy’s characters are broken and damaged people and as she slowly reveals their histories to you, you become more and more invested in their characters. This is not a happy story and it deals with difficult and complex themes like abuse, violence, trauma, and how our childhood and formative years can impact us into adulthood. I feel like McConaghy packs so much punch in so small a novel. There are so many parts I haven’t even touched on yet – Inti’s relationship with the town sheriff, her relationships with her family members, and the fact that Inti has a rare condition called mirror touch, which causes her to literally feel what she sees those around her experiencing.
It’s ambitious for a novel that’s under 300 pages, and yet it all works. McConaghy doesn’t waste time on things that don’t matter and she trusts her reader to draw their own conclusions from the story rather than spelling everything out for us. I feel like there were no ideas out of place. To write such beautiful prose, while also delivering on a character driven mystery novel is an impressive feat!
Definitely a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence. But I do feel that McConaghy handles these topics well. I’ve read several rape/harassment scenes this year that really bothered me because I felt that they were included for shock value, whereas I think in this book they are handled with sensitivity and purpose. It is not included to shock us, but rather to invite the audience to reflect on the devastating impact to the victim and how those events influence and shape a person. It is a dark book, but also a hopeful one. Inti is a broken person, but like the wolves, she is willing to try again, to try and heal herself and keep moving forward. The wolves can heal landscapes, but maybe they can also heal people and communities.
5 stars – I can’t wait to read this again soon.
Side note: I can’t help but mention that I find it fascinating that prior to her two literary novels, McConaghy wrote YA fantasy. I have no idea how they compare in terms of writing, plot, or quality, but I do find it a bit annoying that she seems to be trying to distance herself from them and pretend they don’t even exist. Her author blurb on the back of the book literally calls Migrations her “debut novel”. Like I get trying to re-invent yourself, but that’s a straight up lie. What’s wrong with making your debut in the YA fantasy scene? Be proud of all your books and where you started, it just shows your versatility and growth as an author.