There is a thin line between the present and a dystopian future in Lucy Treloar’s second novel, Wolfe Island. The story opens on the eponymous island, located in the Chesapeake Bay and sinking a little more with every wild storm. Once-abundant oysters and other marine life have gone and, with them, the fishermen and the island’s economy they supported. Tides lap over the streets. Lawns and gardens have given way to salty marshland. Lovely old houses that served families for generations are decaying and collapsing into driftwood.
Stubborn, tetchy and self-reliant, the artist Kitty Hawke is the final remaining resident of Wolfe Island, her house one of the last standing. Her devotion to the island is such that, many years earlier, when her husband and two young children decided to join the exodus to the mainland, she chose to stay without them.
On the “main” (mainland in the Wolfe Island patois), society is as broken as the climate. Armed vigilante “hunters” chase down and kill “runners”, refugees from the south who are trying to get to safety and freedom in the north. People are suspicious and hostile towards strangers: “Vigilance from all, towards all,” as one self-styled “good citizen” tells Kitty. In one memorable scene later in the book, Kitty, far from home, enters a McDonald’s. “The people sucked their straws and pushed the yellow food into themselves,” she tells us. They watch her “with carnivorous attention”. It’s not so surprising that Kitty prefers her island to the mainland. She observes her natural environment, its seasonal and other changes, with a close and poetic eye. Although she feels a gnawing guilt about abandoning her children, she’s more than content with her own company and that of Girl, her wolfdog.
A wolfdog is a strange and uncomfortable hybrid. It is neither completely wild, nor capable of being wholly domesticated. Kitty is a bit like that herself. A tough old bird, she packs a gun and knows how to use it. On the island’s remnant docks, she erects her Watermen, fearsome statues created from animal skulls and found objects. All her artistic “makings” are created from the castoffs of both nature and civilisation – they’re hybrid like her and Girl.
Although Kitty intends the Watermen to mark her territory and ward off visitors, still they come – school groups, birdwatchers and, on the day that will change her life forever, her teenage granddaughter, Cat, with three others, including a young child named Alejandra. As the four young people slowly let Kitty into their confidence, and she lets them into her heart, their secret, illegal and dangerous mission becomes hers as well.
Wolfe Island reads like a fever dream of Trump’s America, where private citizens today conduct armed patrols of the Mexican border and even murder those they consider “invaders”; where immigration and other officials freely persecute and abuse “illegals”, and homelessness has reached crisis proportions. The Chesapeake Bay estuary, on the south-eastern seaboard, was in fact one of the first places in the world to be declared a “marine dead zone”. Its islands are disappearing, too. It is one of the canaries in the coalmine of the climate crisis. And yet America itself is not named in the novel, nor is the “south” from which people flee, or the “north” where they seek sanctuary. Hostility to immigrants and refugees is hardly confined to the United States, of course. But if the point is that it could be anywhere, it’s interesting that Treloar sets Wolfe Island so specifically in Chesapeake Bay. The novel is anchored in the present-day US, and yet the tides of right-wing nationalism and racial hatred that are washing over that country threaten to swamp us all.
Names have a strong and sometimes confusing presence in Wolfe Island. The first line of the novel pointedly draws out the symbolism of the narrator’s name: “My father always said with a name like Kitty Hawke I’d surely fly away.” Because of this, when Kitty introduces us to other characters with strikingly unusual names – Tobermory, Chas Dartmouth, Lionel Starkweather – I searched for meaning there as well. Is Hartford Darkness, Kitty’s estranged husband, supposed to evoke “heart of darkness”? Wolfe Island certainly has its Conradian moments, plenty of tests of character in extremis – but none that involve Hart. Neither could I work out why Kitty, upon hearing a man announcing himself as Harrison Andover, instantly knew it wasn’t his real name.
There were other scenes in the book that plagued me with the thought that, as carefully as I read, I’d missed some crucial explanatory detail or another. In an interview for the literary journal Verity La about her award-winning first novel, Salt Creek, Treloar describes how when she reads the novels of others, she jumps around from beginning to end to middle: “I’m not much interested in plot,” she says. Wolfe Island is assuredly full of plot, an exciting and action-filled one at that. If there are loose threads, perhaps Treloar, who’s an admirably precise writer, loosed them on purpose.
In that same interview, Treloar describes the “ruination of landscape” in Salt Creek as a metaphor for the destruction of family. In Wolfe Island, the ruination of the landscape leads to the implosion of Kitty’s original family, but also inspires the formation of a new one.
There is much that is bleak in this novel, not least its vision of eco-catastrophe and disheartening portrait of humanity under pressure. Even the sanctuary town of Freedom, close to the border with the north, Kitty notes, is “nothing but a way station. It could never be home.” Although she makes it clear we can’t settle in Freedom, Treloar offers qualified hope – that if we leave our islands and join together in resistance, we might make a difference. We might even find (or recover) true family. The book ends with fitting ambiguity at “wolf light”, just before the sun slips over the horizon, when you can’t tell dog from wolf, when the civilised and the savage converge.
Picador, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Lucy Treloar, Wolfe Island". Subscribe here.