Quercus| 2006|450 p|2.5* rounded up to 3* on Goodreads
The Tenderness of Wolves was first published 2006 when it won the both the Costa First Novel Award and the Costa Book of the Year. It has been on my TBR shelves since May 2007 when I first heard about it and thought it sounded fantastic. And yet it has sat on my shelves ever since, mainly because it’s in such a small font. And then at the beginning of March I included it in my S and T post of TBRs and encouraged by the comments began to read it.
Stef Penney is a screenwriter and the author of three novels: The Tenderness of Wolves, The Invisible Ones (2011), and Under a Pole Star (2016, winner of the 2017 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize). She has also written extensively for radio, including adaptations of Moby Dick, The Worst Journey in the World, and, mostly recently, a third instalment of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series.
It’s set in Canada in 1867 beginning in a small place called Dove River on the north shore of Georgian Bay, narrated in part by Mrs Ross in the first person present tense (*see at the end of the post) and also occasionally in the third person past tense. Mr and Mrs Ross were the first people to settle in Dove River – the name she gave to it. Other people came later and settled near the river mouth.
It begins dramatically as she describes the last time she saw the French-Canadian trapper, Laurent Jammet alive ‘he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder‘. He was the Ross’s closest neighbour and the next time she saw him was in his cabin, lying dead on his bed, his throat cut and he had been scalped. Francis, the Ross’s adopted teenage son is missing and is immediately suspected of being the murderer. But Mrs Ross is convinced of his innocence. With no police force as such it is the Hudson Bay Company (the Company) employees and the local magistrate, Andrew Knox who lead the investigation. William Parker a half Indian tracker is also a suspect and is taken into custody. But Knox isn’t convinced Parker is guilty and releases him. Parker and Mrs Ross then set off to follow her son’s tracks into the wilderness.
That’s it in a nutshell, but it is much much more complicated than this. There’s a large cast of characters and at first I found it confusing, unsure of their identity and how they interacted. In fact some of them are just minor characters that don’t feature in the main plot, which is a problem when you’re trying to sort out who is important.
Following Mrs Ross and Parker are the Company employees, Donald Moody and Jacob, another half Indian. Then there is Thomas Sturrock, who says he had business with Jammet who had agreed to sell him something. He describes himself as a lawyer and an archaeologist by inclination and the object he is looking for is a bone tablet inscribed with strange markings that could be some sort of writing. Sturrock was also involved in the search for two young girls who years earlier had disappeared from their home presumed to have been abducted by Indians. Added into the mix are Susannah and Maria Knox, Andrew’s teenage daughters, a group of religious Norwegian settlers, and the employees of the Company, some of them very strange, in an isolated outpost deep in the wilderness.
This is one of the most difficult books to summarise in a coherent way and without giving away too many spoilers.
The plot moves very slowly, switching between locations and characters as very little progress is made in the search for the murderer. I found it frustrating. I never quite acclimatised myself to the use of the present tense which kept distracting me from the story. But when the pace picked up nearer to the end of the book I was keen to find out what happened – and by that time I had worked out who all the characters were. But I was left with a few questions – I really would have liked to know more about the relevance and meaning of the bone or ivory tablet, for example.
Overall, despite my criticism of this book, I did enjoy it and the descriptions of the landscape and climate set it in geographic context, but it just took so long to read particularly with so many sub-plots to hold in my head! I think some of the sub-plots that don’t contribute much to the story could easily have been developed into books in their own right. And the ending seemed so abrupt. I’m not sure I want to read any more of Stef Penney’s books.
* I want to analyse why I find the use of the present tense a problem as I hardly notice it in some books but in others such as this one I find it so irritating that it clouds my judgement. Perhaps it will help if I write my thoughts in a separate post … *