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.