Sometimes you find yourself looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it’s no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth’s nakedness, and you’re glad of it. And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also an immeasurable depth, or something else altogether. -From The Tenderness of Wolves, page 55-
Stef Penney won the 2006 Costa Book Award for this first novel. Set in 1867 in the wilderness of Ontario near Georgian Bay, the novel is a panoramic, fast paced murder mystery. Penney’s cinematic experience as a screen writer is evident in the novel’s structure: short, tension filled chapters from alternating points of view.
The novel opens with the gruesome murder of Laurent Jammett, a French fur trader. His body is discovered by a neighbor – Mrs. Ross – who reports the crime to the local magistrate. Later when she discovers her 17 year old son is missing and he becomes the focus of the investigation, Mrs. Ross becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Penney brings together a wide range of characters besides Mrs. Ross and her son, Francis. There is Mr. Knox – the magistrate – and his daughters Susanna and Maria who tell the story of two girls (their cousins) who walked into the wilderness and were never found; the mysterious Thomas Sturrock arrives to claim an artifact promised to him by Jammett; a team of investigators from the Hudson Bay Company, including Donald Moody – a clumsy, young man with mixed loyalties – arrive within days of the murder; and William Parker, a half breed native American who becomes Mrs. Ross’ guide through the wilderness.
The Tenderness of Wolves is not a simple crime mystery. Penney deftly explores themes such as commercial conflict between the large fur companies and the smaller traders, addiction, infidelity, and sexuality. She has an eye for setting – placing her characters in the snowy landscape of the Northern Territories with wolves lurking in the dark woods. Her skill lies in drawing the reader into the story through a gradual awareness of the facts as tension thickens between key characters. There are parallel stories which weave through the novel – and become as engrossing as the main mystery.
I read The Tenderness of Wolves late into the night, compulsively turning the pages. It is easy to see why Penney won the prestigious Costa Award.
Highly recommended; rated 5/5.