Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tenderness of Wolves

If you haven't read 'The Tenderness of Wolves', the remarkable first novel by Stef Penney, I strongly recommend that you do. Set as it is in Canada of 1867, it is not immediately the sort of book I go for, and you might find it a trifle slow as it establishes its characters and its place, but persevere and it will reward you perseverance.

In essence it is a detective story, but there is no detective or even a policeman in sight. Mysteries pile up: a murdered man, a lost boy, lost girls, a lost husband, a missing wife, lost firs, a cryptic message, a lost language. The Canadian wilderness is the setting. The settlers are largely Scotch with a smattering of Frenchies. The native Americans have been exploited and ... 'enslaved' is too strong a word, but subjugated certainly. Women are exalted, then owned, then beaten. Boys are groomed, then bullied, then expected to mature - and if they fail they are thrown to the wolves. But in this story wolves hardly feature despite the title. They act as a symbol of the wild, but as we are repeatedly told, they seldom attack humans.

Stef Penney grew up in Edinburgh and studied at Bristol University (my old alma mater) before studying film and TV at the excellent College of Art here in Bournemouth. She was picked up by Carlton Television's New Writers scheme and has written and directed two films. She has never been to Canada and, like Karl Marx before her, did all her research in the British Library. (Why should that surprise us? Had Isaac Asimov ever been to outer space?) She has at least one anachronism: the town of Kitchener was named after the General; in 1867 it was called Berlin.

Mostly things resolve themselves, but with so many plot lines and over 50 characters there are some loose ends. What did happen to Amy Seton? Why was Jammet killed? What was Mrs Ross's first name? (Look away now if you don't want to see the spoilers) The answer to the last is Lucy as can be worked out from pages 165 and 170 and indeed from the final page. Jammet was killed because to prevent him taking what others covered and Amy Seton is surely the subject of another book, just as Mrs Ross's prequel is already the subject of a screenplay.

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