Saturday, September 5

The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
450 pgs
Worth: Photobucket

Back cover blurb:
As Winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a woman steels herself for the journey of a lifetime. A man has been brutally murdered and her seventeen-year-old son has dsappeared. The violence has re-opened old wounds and inflamed deep-running tensions in the frontier township - some want to solve crime; others seek only to exploit it.

To clear her son's name, she has no choice but to follow the tracks leaving the dead man's cabin and head north into the forest and the desolate landscape that lies beyond...

What an enjoyable surprise this one turned out to be. This story started well enough, then the whole setting and circumstances just weren't that interesting to me. It was never dull, but it tended to slow and I started to think that the overall concept wasn't going to be of interest to me. Then somewhere after page 140, I got interested. And that interest grew. In the last third of the tale, instead of calculating how many pages I had to get through, I was totally hooked and had settled in for the ride. When I finished the last lines and closed the book, I felt satisfied.

The blurb doesn't do much for me at all. It sounds rather dull and murder-crime type stories don't interest me. But a friend lent me the book suggesting I would enjoy it. What the blurb doesn't tell us, is that this is so much more than about the crime committed.

Despite that the crime is the impetus and the driving force that keeps the tale moving, what keeps the reader hooked is the people, the personal stories, the relationships, or, without giving away too much, the longings.
The tiny story about Line was superfulous to me, but it wasn't uninteresting so I can forgive that to some degree.

The story is atmospheric and I was transported to the vastness, the starkness, the wintry wilderness. And like that vast wilderness, the story is unpredictable, penetrating, but subtle. The pace is steady and the twists and turns are intriguing. The ending doesn't tie up all loose ends, and this will depend on the individual reader how they accept that. For me, it befitted the story. It was a mature ending that didn't patronise by answering every question or neatly completing the possibilities for me.

"You can not tame a wild animal, because it will always remember where it is from, and yearn to go back."

What I enjoyed most, after the story, was Penney's observations of human emotion, behaviours, and interactions. I think that they are a perfect representation of the entire story. They are crystal clear, pin-point accurate, but subtle. She mentions the minutest flicker of the eyes, and does so convincingly. We feel satisfied that we sometimes know the true motives behind a character's words, but more importantly, we know how they feel.

The characters are not the deepest and richest I've read, there's probably too many to allow for that, but I did like the protagonist, a woman, despite that she flawed and not obviously likeable. Also, her writing in general isn't particularly poetic nor the dialogue nuanced enough, but her depiction of their emotions makes up for that I feel. It's almost as if the characters didn't need to be complex because the story is about them.... and it's not. It's about social structures and the experience of being human. Or perhaps I'm giving the author too much credit there.

The loss of 1 star was mostly due to the point-of-view. I just do not enjoy first-person present tense at all. I won't say it was terribly jarring. It didn't put me off completely, but it did take time for me to become accustomed to it. Along with that was the continually changing perspectives that often began with he or she and you have to read a bit before knowing which character is being discussed. They were separated by chapters so it wasn't chaotic at least.

This is Penney's first novel, has she written more? I look forward to more...

trivia: 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.


  1. I have this one in my collection, but I have yet to read it. I may keep it for the wintery nights as the descriptions make it sound suitable.

  2. Sounds like the perfect book to prepare for winter!

  3. interesting. I've heard good and bad things about it, with special regard to the ending, so I think the best idea is that I go and read it myself! Your review has encouraged me in that.

  4. I just saw this at Barnes and Noble the other day and thought it look sort of interesting. I'm not that big a fan of first person either, but this looks good.

  5. I read this a long time ago and I don't think I enjoyed it as much as you did. I seem to remember being very frustrated by the plot, but don't know why now. I'm not a fan of books written in the first person either, so perhaps that was part of it. I'm pleased you enjoyed it though.

  6. Mon - I agree with you re the subtlety and nuance in the behaviours and emotions of the characters. And that it is about human structures and the experience of being human as you identify. Yep - that's what I feel about it also.

    I'm bummed I didn't finish this in time to add a post. Anyway, I felt myself drawn into the layers of the story, and it has a harsh beauty to it that really evokes the snowy wastelands of the novel. It is unsettling, but it has the quietness of a dream.

    What struck me initially, and it is a familiar preoccupation in colonial literatures, is the story of the lost child/ren in the wilderness. This is very much a feature common to colonial fiction and art. And it is primarily based in an anxiety that is projected onto the land concerning its "alien", unpredictable, "untameable" nature. It is something that is perceived as a threat to the civilised, knowable and easily controlled. The child often represents the settler and their feelings of vulnerability in this hostile environment. This fear of the wildnerness and its creatures is prevalent in many of the characters of Penney's novel.

    Yet Penny extends this oft-visited idea of the lost child in the wilderness, and draws the focus back to settler society. It is here that a very human savagery is emphasised, and played out in various ways and in different relationships. And it is the parent-child relationships that are shown to be particularly unstable, ( there are parents who withdraw love, who endanger their children's lives recklessly - among a number of other instances). Family units are revealed as unstable and unpredictable. It's not the wolves in the woods we need fear for their children. (Wolves being a potentially heavy-handed symbol that I thought Penney showed goodly restraint with).

    And of course there is the murder too, and in connection to this, settler relations with Indigenous Canadians are examined.

    It's really ambitious, and I thought Penney flitted about a bit too much with too many characters. I could have done without the Norwegians if it meant developing the Ross clan a little wouldn't have detracted from what she was trying to do. But there you go.

    I'm still very glad to have read this one.

    Forgive the long comment - I'll make deadline next time!


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