Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

As winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Canada’s Dove River in 1867, a man is brutally murdered and a 17-year-old boy disappears. Tracks leaving the dead man’s cabin head north toward the forest and the tundra beyond.

In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the township—journalists, Hudson Bay Company men, trappers, traders—but do they want to solve the crime or exploit it? One-by-one the assembled searchers set out from Dove River, pursuing the tracks across a desolate landscape home only to wild animals, madmen, and fugitives, variously seeking a murderer, a son, two missing sisters, a forgotten Native culture, and a fortune in stolen furs.

In an astonishingly assured debut, Stef Penney weaves adventure, suspense, revelation, and humour into a gripping historical tale, an exhilarating thriller, a keen murder mystery, and ultimately, with the sheer scope and quality of her storytelling, one of the best books of the year.

This book is being sold in the bookstores here with a "Good Reading Guarantee", and that if you didn't enjoy it you could get your money back. If I had of bought it, for the first couple of hundred pages I would have been seriously considered taking advantage of that guarantee. It's not that it wasn't a good read, because it was...eventually. Maybe it was just the way that I was feeling, but every time I opened this book and read a few pages I just wanted to go to sleep. Once I got past a couple of hundred pages it was okay, and I no longer felt the need to sleep through the book but it did take me a very long time to get to that point.

Part of the issue for me was the sheer number of characters there were and how the action followed so many of them. We started out with the people who lived in the town of Dove River, particularly those who were directly affected by the murder of a French trapper. Then, the chief investigators enter the story - a couple of the upstanding gentlemen from the next town over, plus several men from the Hudson Bay Trading Company. Then a couple of other people vaguely connected to the case come into town as well. And then, everyone starts leaving again, in groups of ones and twos, ostensibly to try and track down the young boy who may or may not have killed the trapper. No one knows why he would do this, but still he has disappeared and that would make him appear guilty.

As many of the characters leave Dove River, they enter the wilderness in the middle of winter making travelling hazardous and drawing unlikely travelling companions closer together. Eventually the travellers arrive at a small religious settlement, where yet more characters and subplots are introduced to the book, and then again when they travel on to a small company outpost a little further on.

With the narrative following all the different characters as they arrive in Dove River and then leave in groups of two or three, the story switched too many times even within single chapters.

In the end this was an okay read. I think that there were probably a couple too many strands of the story than there really needed to be and therefore it was difficult to draw them all back into a cohesive finish, but there was certainly a good story to be told in there, and definitely signs of a good writer.

Rating 3.5/5

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