Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of Wolves is a novel by Stef Penney, which was first published in 2006. It won the 2006 Costa Prize for 'Book of the Year'.

The book is set in Canada in the 1860s. It starts with the discovery of the murder of a trapper, and then follows various events that occur as the murderer is sought. As Stef Penney suffered from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel, she did all the research in the libraries of London and never visited Canada. In an Elle Q&A interview, Penney revealed that the inspiration for the novel originated as a screenplay she had written 12 years prior to the novel, which also featured the novel's main character, Mrs. Ross.

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Some eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Stef Penney had won the Costa (previously Whitbread) first novel award: although it is set in Canada, she had done all the research for her novel in the British Library and, being agoraphobic, had not set foot in Canada at all.

Yet this doesn't seem to be a problem. The novel is set in 1867, about a century before her birth, and how she's going to get back to that time without a time machine escapes me. Besides, it is not necessary to visit the location of one's novels; Saul Bellow didn't go to Africa before writing Henderson the Rain King; nor, for that matter, did Julie Burchill visit Prague to write No Exit. Actually, you can easily tell, for slightly differing reasons, that neither author visited the scenes they wrote about. But Penney's evocation of the frozen lands of northern Canada couldn't ring truer if she'd spent months wandering through the land with nothing but a pack of huskies and a native tracker for company. (If there is a possibility that the judges' decision was in some way skewed, one might more usefully look at the way that coffee figures repeatedly in the novel.) I have a small amount of first-hand knowledge of the cold bits of the North American continent, and there isn't a syllable of her evocation that seems forced or voulu

This is doubtless mostly due to her skill as a writer; but I wonder if her agoraphobia didn't play a useful part as well. It might be bad manners, both literary and personal, to bring this up as a means of evaluating the novel, but I can't help thinking that it is the affliction itself that makes her so very attentive to the desolate landscape. I'd imagine that all that wide open space is exactly what an agoraphobic fears most; in which case it is an act of bravery, and indeed of artistic honesty and good faith, which has made her confront and make use of her deepest fears.

The story begins with the discovery of the murdered body of Laurent Jammet, a trapper living near the remote settlement of Caulfield; his throat has been cut and he has been scalped. His body is discovered by a Mrs Ross, a woman of proud bearing and antagonism-inducing intelligence; but her adopted son, a moody and withdrawn adolescent, has also gone missing. With the help of an Indian tracker, who himself is a murder suspect, she heads off into the wilderness to find him - and possibly also to trace the source of the mysterious second set of tracks which her son has probably been following. And if Caulfield is at first portrayed as a one-horse dump, it comes to seem like a thriving metropolis when compared to the pathless wastes that stretch out in front of her.

There are few things like an endless vista to make a novel seem really gratifyingly contained. The novel itself comes to seem like a fragile bubble of consciousness beyond whose limits is a threatening void. (And that's what novels, in one essential manner, are.) And living in the rudimentary civilisation of mid 19th-century Canada must have been like living in a novel: there is nothing to concentrate on except the flawed characters of your fellow human beings, and the spoor left by their movements. And that, in a way, is all The Tenderness of Wolves is about.

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The winner of this year's Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize for first novel, and winner of the overall prize, is a suspenseful, atmospheric novel set in Canada. It is 1867, and the small settlement of Caulfield is witness to a murder. Laurent Jammet, a trapper, trader and loner, is found dead in his bed by his neighbour and the book's main character, Mrs Ross.

Over the next few days, we learn about several of the people who live in the settlement, and those who travel to and from it. We also learn that this is not the first untimely death or accident that the inhabitants have experienced: some years ago, two young girls went out picking berries and never returned. Their mother eventually died of grief, and after years of searching for them, their father died also. The local physician, Doc Wade, was found drowned in Dove River a couple of years previously. Now Francis, Mrs Ross's son, has also vanished, yet his father seems distant and unconcerned.

This cloud of suspicion covers the small town like a blanket. Inside it, we see the lives and characters of the Ross and the Knox families, other neighbours, and the Company men who come to investigate Jammet's death - McKinley, Moody and associates - and their interactions with the locals. (The Company is revealed as the Hudson Bay Company). A trapper friend of Jammet's called Parker, half Indian and half white, is arrested for the crime, but he does not seem a likely suspect. Mrs Ross is desperate to find her son, another friend of the dead man, before he too is suspected.

By this point, although I was enjoying the book, I thought that there were too many characters in it to be able to fix any firmly in my mind or to care very much about any of them. Once the journey started, however, the book began to exert a strong spell on me. The developing relationship between Parker and Mrs Ross, together with her sad tale, is very moving. Parker tells her of an abandoned wolf cub he once found and bought up as a dog, until "It remembered it was a wolf, not a pet. It stared into the distance. Then one day it was gone. The Chippewa have a word for it - it means "the sickness of long thinking". You cannot tame a wild animal, because it will always remember where it is from, and yearn to go back."

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An unkown British writer shook the book world last night, winning the first £30,000 Costa Book of the Year Award (for 35 years it was the Whitbread Award) for her debut novel about Canada - despite a severe medical condition that made it impossible for her to go there.

Stef Penney’s portrait of a small Canadian settlement in deep midwinter was so authentic that when her winning novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, was published in north America, Canadians were convinced that she had spent weeks researching the book there.
In fact, the author who lives in east London, did all her research at the British Library.

Acute agoraphobia meant that she could not travel by aeroplane or train for 15 years.

The Tenderness of Wolves is a murder mystery that takes place in 1967 on Dove River, a lonely snowbound town on the Hudson Bay.
Victory by Penney, 37, was a big upset for the form book.
The bookies had predicted a fierce fight between William Boyd’s spy thriller, Restless, and Keeping Mum, an unusual autobiography about the working class childhood of 71-year-old Brian Thompson.
Penney’s win is all the more remarkable because she revealed to the Daily Telegraph last month that her book was rejected by “quite a lot” of publishers before being bought by the small new publisher, Quercus.

But the 10-strong judging panel, including chairman Armando Iannucci, broadcasters Kate Adie and Clive Anderson, and Carol Thatcher, daughter of Baroness Thatcher, took little more than an hour to pick The Tenderness of Wolves.
The 10-strong panel decided by a two-thirds majority after taking just one vote.

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