05 February, 2014

The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney. Book review

Quercus, 2007.  ISBN 978-1-84724-067-5. 450 pages.

The Tenderness of Wolves is set in Canada in 1867, against a background of farming, trapping and fur trading in an isolated frontier settlement. All the main characters are fictional.

When French trapper Laurent Jammet is found brutally murdered in his cabin in the isolated frontier settlement of Dove River on Georgian Bay, suspicion falls on seventeen-year-old Francis Ross, adopted son of a local farming couple, who disappeared on the same day. Anxious to find out the truth and to clear her son’s name, Mrs Ross (her first name is never given, but can be deduced) sets out to follow his tracks north into the wilderness.  She has the help of a stranger to the settlement, Parker, a trapper who was acquainted with Jammet and who has his own reasons for seeking the killer. Also on the trail are three investigators from the Hudson Bay Company, and a Toronto scholar searching for a mysterious bone tablet that was owned by Jammet and vanished at his death.  Soon the empty forest and tundra are criss-crossed by various search parties, seeking to find – or conceal – the truth about the murder. Not everyone will return.

The Tenderness of Wolves is part literary novel, part mystery, part (mild) adventure quest, and part understated and bitter-sweet love story. The novel has an unusual structure, with short chapters alternating between a first-person narrative by Mrs Ross and third-person narratives from the viewpoint of various other characters. This can be confusing, as everyone seems to have a similar narrative style, and I quite often found myself having to backtrack to remind myself of the narrator, especially if I had put the book aside for a while.  Provided you concentrate, though, the structure has the benefit of showing people and events from more than one perspective.  The novel is written throughout in present tense, a technique that I don’t generally care for. I think it may be intended to create an impression of immediacy, like a screenplay, but for me it always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and putting everything into slow motion.

Fortunately, the beauty of the landscape descriptions are worth lingering over, so the slow pace does not matter. This was the outstanding feature of the book for me. Forest and bog and bony upland, all under ever-deepening snow as winter tightens its grip, the bone-aching cold and the loneliness of an empty landscape where one settlement may be several days’ arduous travel from the next, are described in lyrical prose. The lovely scene in which Mrs Ross and Parker watch a wolf on the edge of their camp is especially memorable.

The vast landscape dwarfs the humans living in it, and many of the characters seem to be oppressed by it in different ways, perhaps feeling that it magnifies their sense of their own inadequacies. Early in the novel Mrs Ross, who came to Canada from the Scottish Highlands – itself a sparsely populated environment, especially after the Clearances had got going – tells us that when she first arrived she was so overwhelmed by the emptiness that she broke down in tears.  Donald Moody, a likeable and introspective young man who works for the Hudson Bay Company, is unsure of himself, doubting his ability to manage in such a place.  Another company man is apparently in the process of drowning his fears in laudanum.  By contrast, some of the Native American trappers such as Parker seem completely at home in the wilderness.

In a cleverly constructed plot, the murder mystery turns out to be connected to a web of theft, mutiny and trade monopolies, gradually revealed by the various searchers.  All the threads of the murder – who did it and why – are neatly drawn together and resolved at the end.  Many other threads are left hanging, though (I was especially disappointed about the bone tablet).  I suppose this reflects real life, which tends to be full of unresolved mysteries and unanswered questions.

There’s no map and no historical note, so readers interested in aspects of the background, such as the history of pioneer settlement in Canada, or the workings of the fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company, will have to research it on their own.

Beautifully written tale of a pioneer community in nineteenth-century Canada, part mystery and part bitter-sweet love story.


Rick said...

I'd also be disappointed about not finding out what the bone tablet means!

Carla said...

Rick - quite so. I was looking forward to finding out what it was and why it mattered, and then it just disappeared. Perhaps there was originally a resolution that was deleted in editing, or perhaps it was what you've described as a 'ghost off-ramp', or perhaps it was just intended to be inscrutable.
Still, the book was worth reading for the landscape descriptions.

Annis said...

I thought this was a wonderfully evocative novel about love, loss and what the Welsh call "hiraeth" and I felt cold the whole time I was reading it! I was very surprised to discover later that Penney had never herself visited Canada.

It also introduced me to the tragic true story of the Irish orphans of Grosse Île

Carla said...

Annis - yes, I was surprised about that at first, but then I thought: well, Rosemary Sutcliff never visited Arthurian Britain, and GRR Martin has never visited Westeros. So it illustrates the power of human imagination and communication.

I felt cold all the time I was reading it too, though by sheer chance I was reading it during a bitter winter cold snap - so in my case the real weather matched the book rather well :-)

Would you mind saying a bit more about the hiraeth aspect? That's interesting, because I'm not sure I picked that up, or at any rate not as something distinct from a yearning for human contact /love /companionship in the midst of the vast empty landscape. I know it means more than the rough English translation of 'homesickness' (which doesn't do it justice). I'm curious as to which parts of the book you thought represented hiraeth.

Annis said...

Yes, that's something that's always impressed me about Sutcliff - her amazing ability to place you right at the heart of places she could never have visited herself.

It struck me very strongly that "The Tenderness of Wolves" was about exile, and the loss of the homeland, Scotland. This is where the idea of "hiraeth" comes in, as a yearning distinct in itself from the longing for human contact/love/companionship amongst a group living on the margins of an alien new land.

I enjoyed Penney's second novel "The Invisible Ones" as well- although the setting is more contemporary it's again a story about outsiders, this time those living on the margins of society.

Carla said...

That's interesting, thank you. I didn't pick that aspect up in the same way as you did. E.g. although Mrs Ross is from Scotland and reflects on it from time to time, I didn't get the impression that she especially wanted to return there, more that she wanted a closer connection with her husband and son. On the other hand, an element of hiraeth is that people fail to thrive if moved away from their homeland, and it could certainly be said that Mrs Ross is not really thriving in Canada (and perhaps something similar could be said of Donald Moody, although when I read the book I put that down to his inexperience).