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The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IN 2006 and for only the fourth time since its inception in 1985, a debut novel won the Costa Book of the Year Award (formerly the Whitbread Prize). That novel was The Tenderness of Wolves by British author Stef Penney.

Set in the winter of 1867, the story centres on Mrs Ross who, with her husband Angus, emigrated from the Highlands of Scotland to Canada and the isolated settlement of Dove River. It’s there that she discovers the brutal murder of Laurent Jammet, a trapper and her nearest neighbour. And matters are further complicated by the disappearance of her 17 year-old adopted son Francis.

With the finger of suspicion pointing firmly the young man’s way, Ross follows her instincts and sets out to prove his innocence – by following the tracks leading from Jammet’s cabin. Her guide on the dangerous journey across the desolate snowscapes of northern Canada is William Parker, a half breed who is himself a suspect in Jammet’s murder.

The characters – and there are a good many – are well drawn and convincing. As well as Donald Moody, the young Glaswegian Company man sent to solve the crime; his boss Mackinley who’s not averse to employing unorthodox methods to get what he wants and Thomas Sturrock, a tracker seeking a missing bone carving known to have been in Jammet’s possession, there’s Andrew Knox, an elderly magistrate and his two daughters – the beautiful but vacuous Susannah and the plain but intelligent Maria.

All are relevant to the plot, their lives intricately entwined in a tale that combines romance, murder and mystery. So why introduce four completely superfluous characters – Espen, Line and her two children, Torbin and Anna, from the Norwegian settlement of Himmelvanger? Hardly a red herring (and believe me, there is one), I can only assume their inclusion is a means of embodying real terror – the terror of being lost and alone in a wilderness.

Indeed, Penney’s imaginative and descriptive prose cleverly evokes the hostile Canadian environment with its extreme cold and cloying isolation – all the more creditable as, a one-time sufferer of agoraphobia, she has never visited Canada. In fact, her research took her no further than the British library.

Also unusual, is her frequent switch from first to third person narrative although this does allow the reader to see things from perspectives other than the central character’s. Combine this with her tantalizing interchange of story arcs and you certainly need to keep your wits about you. It nevertheless, makes compulsive reading.

That said, I was strangely disappointed by the ending – perhaps because it left a number of loose ends or simply because it wasn’t entirely unexpected. A twist would have been nice. And I have to admit, I’m completely flummoxed by the title. I had hoped that it might reveal some aspect of wolf behaviour that would exonerate these beautiful creatures from unjust persecution but there was nothing – just an occasional sighting and an unseen attack on a sick horse. A pity.

The Tenderness of Wolves does, however, merit reading. Not only does it deliver an intriguing story, it also addresses sensitive issues such as homosexuality and racism, subjects that were, no doubt, taboo in the 19th century. And, in spite of its flaws, it is very well written. Don’t miss it.