BookBrowse Reviews The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

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The Tenderness of Wolves

A Novel

by Stef Penney

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2008, 384 pages

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An exhilarating literary mystery and first novel set in northern Canada in 1867. Winner of the 2006 Costa Book of the Year Award

First time novelist Stef Penney shook the British literary world last year when she won the Costa Award (formerly Whitbread Award) with The Tenderness of Wolves, not least because she has never been to Canada and carried out all her research in the British Library. Although at first glance it might seem surprising that an author could write with such authority about a place she's never been to, it should be noted that no one alive at this time has been to 19th century Canada either! So, whether she carried out her research by leafing through pages in the British Library or wandering through the trees of Northern Ontario is, arguably, a moot point.

Having said that, often when an author writes about a place purely on the basis of research there are telling missteps or, more frequently, an excess of background information as the author attempts to squeeze every last interesting fact into the text. Penney deftly rises above both potential quagmires - her detailing of the time is sufficient to provide ambience without being burdensome and, despite diligent searching, we've yet to find a review that implies that her grasp of the period details is anything less than spot-on.

Although there are a multitude of characters and plot threads in The Tenderness of Wolves (perhaps, a few too many of both), the central role is taken by Mrs Ross, who stands out from the rest of the cast because she narrates her part of the story, while the rest of the story is told in the third person. It is she who discovers the brutally murdered body of the dead Frenchmen and, shortly afterwards, heads out into the wilderness with an unknown, part-Indian tracker in search of her adopted-son, who is suspected of the murder.

As the novel progresses we learn a lot about Mrs Ross, her past and her fears. She is an agoraphobic who has learned to handle her panic attacks through the use of laudanum, from which she is now "clean". We come to admire the extraordinary strength it would take for a woman such as herself to leave the semblance of civilization that is the settlement of Caulfield (where "what pass
for heroics in a softer world are daily chores") to go out into the unknown with a strange, possibly dangerous, man.

Mrs Ross is not the only character to be struggling with her lot in life. Central to the book is the concept of the "sickness of long thinking" that seems to describe a sense of yearning, even questing, for the unattainable. With a cast of almost two dozen well-developed characters we see many men and women struggling honorably and dishonorably with their lot in life. Like The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Tenderness of Wolves is a classic "western" in which the raw and rugged people are dwarfed by their surroundings as they find their way towards, or away from, hard-won redemption.

Stef Penney was born and grew up in Edinburgh. She turned to film-making after a degree in Philosophy and Theology from Bristol University and a variety of jobs in the UK and abroad. She made three short films before studying Film and TV in Bournemouth, and on graduation was selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme.

The closest she has been to a frozen wilderness was a desolate vacation in the Highlands as a child, when she recalls miserably trudging through mud. Shortly after leaving university she started suffering from agoraphobia*. The first panic attack occurred when she was squashed into the back of a car during a journey. From then on, any form of travel triggered an attack. Her greatest fear was of the panic itself, "It's simply the most frightening thing I've ever experienced".    It was because of her agoraphobia that Penney completed all her research in the library without visiting Canada at all.

Penney became fascinated by what would have happened to someone like her in the 19th century, before the age of therapy and safe sedatives. Thus Mrs Ross was born. Mrs Ross made her first appearance in a screenplay Penney wrote about the 18th century Highland Clearances, when much of the population of the Scottish Highlands was forcibly evicted from the land.  Nova Scotia, a film based on the screenplay, was "in production" with a UK film company in 2007 and appears to be still "in production" at this time, which presumably means that production has stalled.

Penney has learnt how to manage her agoraphobia after trying all sorts of therapy. Finally, she says, she got so sick of her own limitations she had to find the courage to overcome them. "But I don't think I'll ever be 'normal' again - if there is such a thing."

*Agoraphobia literally translates as "fear of the marketplace". There is a common misconception that agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces but this is not the case.  Agoraphobics are not necessarily afraid of open spaces but of having panic attacks as a result of being in certain locations.

Interesting link: Stef Penney talking about The Tenderness of Wolves on You Tube.

This review was originally published in July 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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