The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

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The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

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Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A deserving winner of the Costa Book of the Year for 2006 The Tenderness of Wolves is an intriguing murder mystery and a skillfully portrayed romance. The writing is superb, the story un-put-downable and it's highly recommended by The Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 466 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 978-1847240675

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Winner Costa Book Awards 2006

Following the Highland Clearances in the nineteenth century, Angus Ross and his wife left Scotland to emigrate to Canada and settled in Dove River on the edge of the outback. Their lives were hard but not particularly eventful until the day in 1867 when Mrs Ross discovered the body of a neighbour. Laurent Jammet had been brutally murdered. Worse was to come for Mrs Ross. On that same day her seventeen-year-old adopted son, Frances disappears and the local community suspects him of being the murderer. Even Angus Ross is unwilling to find out what has happened to his son.

William Parker is part English and part Native American. In the absence of Francis, he too is suspected of the murder and 'questioned' by a representative of The Hudson Bay Company who mete out justice in the area. Released, he and Mrs Ross set out to follow Francis and to find Laurent Jammet's murderer, despite the fact that they're heading into the outback and winter is tightening its grip.

Sometimes a book takes your breath away because it comes so close to perfection. The Tenderness of Wolves is dominated by the desolate landscape and punishing climate of Northern Canada. It's so vividly drawn that I felt physically cold and terrified by the conditions the travellers faced. I imagined that the author had perhaps lived there and wrote from experience but Stef Penney had never been to Canada before writing the book. She suffered from agoraphobia and the journey would have been impossible for her. All her research was done in the British Library. Perhaps this meant that she was able to convey the extremes with clarity and without allowing the mundane to intrude, but it's certainly an amazing achievement.

The Tenderness of Wolves is astonishingly assured for a debut novel. Various strands weave their way through the book: love in its many forms predominates but there's also greed and the corruption of power. There's even a mystery which has remained unsolved for many years. Three girls went out for a picnic and only one returned: the father of the two missing girls spent all his money in an attempt to find out what became of the girls, but died poor and without having the outcome he wanted. The murder of Laurent Jammet - the theme which runs throughout the book - is worthy of a seasoned crime novelist and the suspense was such that I found myself holding my breath on occasions.

The book is well-populated with people but they're handled with confidence and sensitivity. They're all fully-formed. I loved the fact that Mrs Ross is always called that - we only have hints as to what her first name might be. She's a woman of strength and honour but with a rather dubious past. It was tremendously reassuring to find that the heroine of the book was in early middle age (even today) but still not beyond an adventurous journey or even a romantic involvement. Her growing affection for William Parker sent shivers of recognition down my spine. It's a relationship where even the touch of a hand is unusual but it's more sensuous for all that. More minor characters such as Moody, the acceptable face of the Hudson Bay Company, have crept under my skin. I really cared what happened to these people and days after I finished the book they're still fresh and alive in my mind.

There's food for thought too about the way that the native tribes were treated, particularly by The Hudson Bay Company and the contempt in which the idea that there might have been a written Native American culture was held. The research here was obviously meticulous, but that's true of the whole book. Some books are well-researched, but you feel that every bit of research has been ploughed back into the book. With this book there's a sense that the author has told only a fraction of what she knows, that's she's a storyteller with knowledge rather than a researcher with a book in mind.

It's not a quick read, despite the compelling storylines and that's because the writing is so assured, so witty that it was a constant temptation to reread passages for the pleasure that the words gave. Let me give you an example. A neighbour marches into Mrs Ross' kitchen and doesn't quite accuse Francis (who has a foreign look about him) of the murder, but Mrs Ross can imagine that she will do so elsewhere:

She considers herself a well-travelled woman, and from each place she has been to, she has brought away a prejudice as a souvenir.

This book wasn't written; it was crafted and in years to come it will be thought of as a classic. I don't often say that people must read books - but I think this should be one of those rare occasions. It is superb. We also have a review of Penney's Under a Pole Star.

If you enjoy this type of book then you might also like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.

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Buy The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney at


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Priscilla Atkinson said:

I very much enjoyed this book. It was a really good read and one had to keep one's wits about one as to where and what the action was and by whom it was happening. It left questions unanswered like to what did the marks on the piece of bone relate and what happened to Amy when she disappeared with her sister Elizabeth. In spite of hurrying through the book because of excitment I was really sorry when I came to the end and I would have liked to know what happened to Mrs Ross and Parker. Did she go back to her husband? What happened to Line? In fact the characters were really well drawn and one felt they were real and as for the location of the book it was marvellouly drawn and the author's description of the country and the cold were marvellous.

I hope she writes another novel soon!

Colin Cameron said:

Extraordinary piece of work even if some of the distances traveled would have taken months not days.

Rose Marie Fries said:

I have not read this book yet, but it has been highly recommended to me by my daughter. After reading your thorough and exciting review, I am going to get the book immediately.

Carol Siegenthaler, Peist, Switzerland said:

Just finished the book and enjoyed this review immensely. Thank you.