Review: Once There Were Wolves - Charlotte McConaghy
Genre: Literary Fiction Published: Flatiron Books, August 2021 (UK) & Penguin Random House, January 2022 (US)
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
From the author of what was probably my favourite novel of last year, comes another masterpiece. Like its predecessor, Once There Were Wolves combines climate fiction with an intimate character portrait of trauma, isolation and the patterns we evolve in order to survive.
“When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.”
That’s how McConaghy first introduces us to her characters, through a memory… Although we soon learn that it’s not quite what you may at first think, it’s one of the most intriguing opening lines in fiction I’ve encountered in a while. It also sets the tone perfectly for what’s to follow.
Our narrator Inti and her twin sister Aggy have grown up inseparable through an unconventional childhood and the tumultuous years after. Their connection is strengthened even further due to Inti’s unusual neurological condition, mirror-touch-synaesthesia, causing her brain to interpret every sensation she sees as if it were happening to her own body. Inti’s almost obsessive devotion to her job as a wolf-biologist uproots the two to the remote Scottish highlands, on a mission to introduce a population of wolves back into the ecosystem. Unfortunately, much to the dislike of the local farming community.
What follows is a tense exploration of family- and pack-mentality, a melancholic portrait of the effects of emotional and physical violence on a joint life, and a hint of murder mystery to increase the stakes even further.
“Trauma can create new patterns. I'm no stranger to this.”
There’s little praise to be sung about Once There Were Wolves, that I haven’t already gushed about at length when talking about Migrations. McConaghy is a master of character writing, especially when it comes to the flawed, yet realistic coping-mechanisms they employ to survive. Like Franny, both Aggy and Inti are pushed to the brink, their deeply co-dependent relationship a by-product of their history together. Their stories aren’t easy ones to read, but told in McConaghy’s stunning prose and paralleled with lush nature-writing, they make for the perfect melancholic and haunting tales that linger long after you close the book.
My one and only critique is the use of mirror-touch-synaesthesia as a plot-point. It felt just a little on the nose, and overly melodramatic to me in its presentation. From a medical standpoint, yes, this condition is real. It’s also extremely rare, and almost never as literal or severe as portrayed here. It’s by no means problematic, but I’m personally iffy about the use of medical conditions, especially in this kind of stylized form, as plot motifs. In this case, I don’t think the story benefitted from it too much: Inti’s sensitive and empathetic nature would have come across just fine without.
Overall: McConaghy has quickly joined the list of my favourite modern authors, and I’m highly anticipating whatever she writes next.
Although I’d already purchased and read the novel on my own initiative, I want to thank Penguin Random House for the unsolicited ARC, based off my review of Migrations. I’m happy to support this authors work in the future.