Once There Wolves a Compelling Short Novel




By Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron Books, 255 pages.





If you transported Richard Powers to the mystery genre, you might end up with a novel such as Once There Were Wolves.  Australian-born Charlotte McConaghy has penned a novel that’s so good it’s already won a place among the best I will read in 2022. Among her many virtues is the ability to tell a gripping story compactly yet still spool out relevant details and backstories at a deliberate pace that keeps you turning the pages to confirm or dispute what you have inferred.


Initially, Once There Were Wolves seems like the sort of paean to nature that Powers could have written. Its central character Inti Flynn is an eco-warrior. She is in Scotland as part of a four-person team that’s trying to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. It would not be too dramatic to call Inti a zealot. The book’s earliest chapters skirt the border of being a treatise on how nature self-heals when ingredients are added back into ecosystems. Inti is not shy in telling nervous locals of all the wonderful things wolves will bring, though all they can imagine is flocks of dead sheep with their throats slashed and entrails spilt.


About the time we are ready to think of this novel as a Scottish version of the battle between scientists and New England lobstermen, McConaghy begins to add ingredients of her own to the novel. We learn that Inti’s mute twin Aggie is with her in Scotland and that Aggie’s silent condition has no physical cause. The two have always been closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives and hints are dropped that something happened to Aggie when she was living in Alaska. Prior to that, Aggie was a lively, carefree young woman.


As noted, though, don’t expect to know the details of that until McConaghy is ready to reveal them. We do learn that the Flynn sisters come from a broken home, but not of the conventional sort. Their father was a tree hugger in British Columbia who was so over the top that he believed his environmental activism would single-handedly save the world. It was he who taught Inti much about surviving in the wild. By contrast, their mother is a cop in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in misogynistic crimes. It was she who helped Inti cope with an affliction; she has mirror-touch synesthesia–a condition linked to hyper-empathy syndrome–and literally feels the pain of other people and animals. If Aggie burnt her right hand, Inti also experienced it.


Things are not exactly going well in the Cairngorms of Scotland. Several locals led by Red McCrae and Stuart Burns have raised the rabble to staunch opposition to the wolves and Burns has shot one he claims strayed onto his land. That’s rubbish, but local police superintendent Duncan Mactavish can’t prove otherwise and has to talk Inti down from her high horse. (Another kind of horse factors into the story!) He and Inti are also attracted to each other, so Duncan faces a tough task. It doesn’t help that Inti is convinced that Stuart has been beating Lainey, his wife, and it gets very complicated when Stuart disappears. Author Nicholas Sparks once called small-town gossip the “toxic waste” of such places, an apt way of thinking of a Highland hamlet smaller than its nearby “large” town of Abernethy (pop. 945).


At this juncture, McConaghy begins to reveal more about Inti, Aggie, Duncan, Burns, and several of the other locals. The experience of reading Once There Were Wolves is a bit like watching a painter whose landscape we only see late in the process, as the artist lays on each of the colors one at a time. You can be excused if you conclude that humans are more vicious than wolves.


McConaghy keeps us guessing to the end and even if you do manage to unravel a mystery or two, their details will probably spin differently than you imagined. The final pages are a tad too abrupt in their sunny optimism given the darkness of what comes before. Yet, the ending is also probably just as you would have wished it. Again, one can only applaud Charlotte McConaghy’s concision. She tells a compelling tale in 255 pages when too many writers take twice as long to say half as much.


Rob Weir







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