I bought Tenderness of Wolves because it won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006 but somewhere in my brain the title had become muddled with In the Company of Wolves, so when it arrived I was more than a little thrown to read the blurb and find that the central character was a woman. That wouldn’t have gone down well with Kevin Costner!
Canada, 1867. Laurent Jammet, a hunter-trader, has been found in his bed with his throat cut; neighbour, 17 year old Francis Ross is missing. Francis’ mother decides to do something ‘foolish and brave and dangerous’ by leaving her home in Dove River and following Francis into the wilderness with half-native tracker, Parker, a stranger and also a suspect.
So it’s an historical murder mystery? Well, yes and no. It’s set in the past and the narrative movement is who-dun-it, no question. But what marks the book out, without a doubt, is its exploration of the complexities of sexuality and sexual desire.
The story is littered with unconventional or unexpected love-triangles: Mrs Ross, Parker, and Mrs Ross’ husband Angus; Donald, Susannah, and Susannah’s sister Maria; the Norwegian settlers, Line, Epsen, and Epsen’s wife Marete; Laurent, Francis, and Laurent’s absent wife.
‘This country is scored with marks; slender traces of human desire,’ observes Mrs Ross, in the final chapter.
And the uncompromising wilderness is the perfect metaphor for desires that are ultimately curtailed, frustrated or unfulfilled. Mrs Ross, walking in the snow, keeps on going – ‘for what else can any of us do?’
In an interview Steph Penney said she’d set out to write her ‘favourite book because no one else had quite done it.’ And, although recognisably using the ‘mystery template’, there’s no denying this is an original!
*** Highly recommended