‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney

Tenderness

Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 466 pages; 2007.

When Laurent Jammet, a French settler, is found brutally murdered in his shack in the frontier township of Dove River a whole chain of events is set in motion.

It is 1867 and life on the edge of the Canadian wilderness is tough. It’s even tougher when you decide to hunt the killer by trekking through the Arctic snow, which is what Mrs Ross, an immigrant from the Scottish Highlands, decides to do when her teenage son, Francis, is accused of the crime.

But this is more than one woman’s tale. There are stories within stories in this cleverly crafted novel, which scored Stef Penney the Costa Book of the Year in 2006. We meet a whole cast of divergent characters, each of whom has their own reasons for finding the murderer.

There is Parker, a half-breed Cherokee, who is arrested for the crime but later escapes and helps Mrs Ross on her trek; John Scott, a wealthy landowner who runs a dry goods store, and is privy to local gossip; Andrew Knox, the elderly magistrate, and his two daughters, the beautiful Susannah and the plain but intelligent Maria; Donald Moody, the young somewhat green Company employee who is charged with investigating the crime, along with his colleagues Mackinley, the factor of Fort Edgar, who has a penchant for taking the law into his own hands, and Jacob, a half-breed who serves as Donald’s bodyguard; and Thomas Sturrock, an old journalist, who once befriended the dead man and seems intent on finding a special bone carving that he feels should be willed to him.

To complicate matters further, there are two sub-plots running throughout this book. The first involves the mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls 15 years earlier. Amy and Eve Seton, daughters of the local doctor, went on a picnic with their friend Cathy but were never seen again. The second involves Line, a Norwegian immigrant, who lives in a religious settlement north of Dove River but wishes to escape with her children and her lover.

All these characters and storylines combine to create a rather powerful if somewhat disjointed narrative. This is further complicated by Mrs Ross telling her side of the story in first-person while everyone else takes it in turn, chapter by chapter, to have theirs narrated in the third-person. I’m not sure this narrative approach entirely works, especially when it comes to the climax which is told from so many points of view it loses its immediate impact.

The greatest failing, in my opinion, is the lack of resolution in several narrative threads, which weakens the novel and leaves the reader slightly frustrated when they finally get to the last page.

But Penney’s writing style, on a whole, is confident and perfectly captures frontier life. Her descriptions of the snowy wilderness and the resultant isolation and loneliness are pitch-perfect. Perhaps that’s why this book has been so lauded, as you’d be hard pressed to read another debut novel that so expertly conveys an unfamiliar world in such an immediately familiar way. But personally, I just felt The Tenderness of Wolves lacked the narrative hook to keep me reading — and judging by all the glowing accounts online I may, just possibly, be the only person to feel this way.

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6 thoughts on “‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney

  1. No, you are not the only one. I was disappointed when I read this, and was totally surprised when it won so many awards and things. I have been wondering what exactly it was that I didn’t see when I was reading it!

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  2. Marg, phew. I tried and tried to really *love* this book, but I felt rather luke warm about it and wondered whether I had maybe missed a trick. I guess it just goes to prove that awards are completely subjective, and what one person loves, another person may detest.

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  3. We read this for my book group a few months ago, and I did quite enjoy it – but agree with you about the loose ends. I think the main problem was that Penney couldn’t decide whether she was writing a detection novel or a literary fiction novel – the two genres sort of ambled alongside each other, ultimately leaving neither satisfied. Even with this quibble, though, I thought it well written – though had to keep reminding myself it was 1867, as the novel felt more modern.

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  4. I loved this book. Yes, there are some “loose ends”, but isn’t that the way life is? I felt they added to the beauty and mystery of this story. I got this book from the library, but now I’ll buy it so I can read it again – a beautifully written book!

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  5. It’s so interesting reading all of these comments; so much of what I felt perfectly depicted above. I felt the most unsatisfactory element being the lack of an ending, I wanted those loose ends tied up; I wanted to know what happened to Mrs Ross once she’d returned. I did however enjoy the journey described and the snow. I read this over Christmas in my attempt to find the winter wonderland I was craving, and to some extent it satisfied this craving.

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  6. Thanks for your comment, Megan. If you are still craving a winter wonderland story I highly recommend Alexi Zentner’s Touch. It was longlisted for last year’s Giller Prize and it was an extraordinary tale, really atmospheric and one that I still keep thinking about…

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