Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Perhaps this isn’t the best book to read during chilly weather. Set in the winter of 1867, a Canadian winter at that, there are a lot of descriptions of snowy wastes. The story begins in the isolated settlement of Dove River when a trapper, Laurent Jemmet, is found gruesomely murdered in his cabin, and seventeen-year-old Francis Ross has disappeared. Several men from the Hudson Bay Company arrive to investigate, among them, young accountant, Donald Moody, recently from Scotland and eager to prove his worth.

First thoughts are that Francis may have been responsible, but the victim was his friend. Francis’s mother, the prickly Mrs Ross, will search for him on foot if she must, to prove his innocence. There are two sets of tracks leaving the cabin, after all. Soon several motives emerge - a missing cache of furs, competition from a rival trading company, a lost bone tablet which might prove the existence of a written native language, though perhaps Francis had a motive of his own.

There are further interesting story threads woven into the plot. Years before, two young girls disappeared from Dove River, possibly eaten by wolves, or kidnapped by a native tribe. There is Mrs Ross’s own story - her time spent in an asylum, her difficult relationship with her husband. Other characters take the narrative: Maria Knox, intelligent but often overlooked next to her charming sister, Susannah; Thomas Sturrock, the searcher who failed to find the girls.

Characters are lost and found again, some of them at death’s door, while the tenuous relationships between Native Canadians and the settlers, between the Company men and traders and even among family members, are all explored. The harshness of the environment makes for a tense read and reminds you that this isn’t a land for sissies.

The Tenderness of Wolves takes you to another time and place, and works as a stunning piece of crime fiction as well as a top notch historical drama. The novel won for its author a Costa Book of the Year Award in 2006. Her latest book, Under a Pole Star came out last year and, set in the Arctic, features even more snowy wastes.

Posted by by JAM

Catalogue link: The Tenderness of Wolves

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