Book review: Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Life can be tough so it makes sense that there comes a time when we want to hide from it, push it away and create a haven, as much as that is possible, that feels safer, kinder and less reflective of our past.

But as Kitty Hawke, the protagonist of Lucy Treloar’s mesmerisingly beautiful and quietly but powerfully affecting second novel, Wolfe Island, discovers such havens do not have a long shelf life nor are they as hermetically sealed off from what has gone before as we might like to think.

An artist who creates sculptures of “found objects” recovered on daily mudlarking adventures around her home of Wolfe Island (a fictitious creation located in Chesapeake Bay, Kitty is the last of her kind, the final holdout of a centuries-old culture that once thrived in its own small, sealed-off way but which has now succumbed to the erosive horrors of climate change.

With home after home tumbling into the ever-rising sea and salt seeping upwards into once-fertile arable land, the island, which once sustained so many, is now a shadow of its former self.

The same could be, in many ways, about Kitty herself.

Estranged from her surviving daughter and ex-husband due to decisions made many years earlier – she needed the island more than she needed her family, at least at the time, a prioritising that placed a wedge in a once-tight familial structure – Kitty isn’t unhappy so much as hidden away from reality, content to create her art, go walking with her wolfdog Girl and to shore up her home and her land from the endless assault of a climate gone destructively awry.

“I knew in those moments two things: The purest contentment, and that I would kill anyone who hurt these people. The things you go on discovering about yourself are interesting, I think, if you care to look at them directly. I’ve known for years that there was a murderer hiding within me, and somehow I’d gone on living, and often laughed.” (P. 173)

Her somewhat flawed idyll is shattered comprehensively though slowly and with ever-more welcomed enthusiasm when Kitty’s granddaughter Cat shows up with boyfriend Josh in tow and a brother and sister who are on the run from immigration officials.

While she is reluctant at first to get too involved in the lives of these unexpected visitors, she soon finds herself unable to leave to their own devices and a cruel world which cares little for them and a great deal for the enforcement of terribly inhuman policies.

With the arrival of this most unusual of created families, the two prevailing themes of Wolfe Island come into play.

In quietly-realised developments, Kitty comes to realise that you can’t ever shut the world or the past out and that she has a profoundly important decision to make – she either turns her back on these kids or she engages with them, the overwhelming issues confronting them and helps to hopefully overcome them.

Kitty opts for the latter since while she may have become an accidental hermit – she rejects the term, arguing her reasons for remaining alone on the island are not easily discerned nor as simplistic as some might think – she values family, justice and meaningful connections to those she cares for and cannot help but act on those hitherto un-acted upon priorities.

Lucy Treloar (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Sporting a slightly-dystopian feel to its story, in which Kitty and her charges venture, by necessity from the island up north through to what is clearly Canada (though it is never directly referred to as such), Wolfe Island is an insightful engrossing meditation on what happens to a society when age-old certainties are upended.

Some people, such as those who inhabit the town of Freedom close to the Canadian border, over which lies safety, inclusivity and practical humanity, react by embracing a shared sense of caring and community while others, far too many others, respond with aggression, vigilante violence and a reckless giving into the darker angels of humanity’s nature.

It’s an instructive lesson in how the very worst of times all too often brings out the very worst, and yes, more rarely the best, in people and how important the tight bonds of family and connection are in such circumstances.

What makes Wolfe Island such an immersive joy to read, despite its often troubling subject matter, is the way in which Kitty finds a measure of redemption in her harrowing journey north and then back again.

While the journey is marked by trials, tribulations and a great deal of loss and privation, it is also hallowed by Kitty finding herself again, not dramatically like some melodramatic road to Damascus epiphany but subtly and in small but life-transformative ways.

“You might not believe all this, but it is true just the same. The world is inexplicable in its miracles and horrors. Writing the last of my journey into the notebook reminds me of that. I couldn’t write at Doree’s. Sometimes I sit in my boat, the water shifting ever so softly. It feels like it’s holding me. The words come out not too haltingly. Perhaps they’re lulled, as I am, by the movement. I read some sections of the notebook and it comes back to me. Other parts I skip over quickly.

The grip of life and death is everywhere, and despite everything I’ve been through and everything I’d caused my heart has kept beating.” (P. 339)

This is what makes Wolfe Island such a wholly affecting read.

Kitty Hawke is an honourable loving person who, like all of us, has made more than her share of misjudgments and mistake in life, leading her down paths that she would, in retrospect, have preferred she had not travelled down.

Her decision to help Cat and Josh, Luis and Alejandra – she forms an especially close bond with the frightened but sweet 7-year-old who in turns connects deeply with Girl – is borne not of a desire to seek some sort of clemency or redemption but simply because it is the right and caring thing to do and she is a right and caring person.

Wolfe Island is not about Kitty finding something she has lost entirely but merely recovering that which was temporarily put aside, a return to the essence of who she decently is at a time when many other people are abandoning any semblance of looking out for their fellow man, woman or beast.

It is a clarion call, one rooted in a very human and softly spoken but deeply impacting story, to favour the best of ourselves in situations where the temptation to shut out the world may prove more alluring.

Kitty doesn’t give into her base desires, such as they are – in all honesty she doesn’t even contemplate giving into them though it’s clear at first that cat expects her on that windswept, stormy night that she arrives on the island – upholding that which matters not just to her but which should also deeply matter to all of us in a world riven by climate change, global upheaval and COVID-19, a world which we cannot shut her out and which Kitty movingly demonstrates we must engage with if we truly want to make a difference, both to ourselves and those who are or become our family.

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