The Tenderness of Wolves

Thursday March 22, 2007 in books read 2007 |

He says there are no bears in this part of the country. What about wolves? I want to know. He gives me a pitying look.
‘Wolves don’t attack people. They might be curious, but they won’t attack you.’
I tell him about those poor girls who were eaten by wolves. He listens without interruption, and then says, ‘I’ve heard of them. There was no sign that the girls were attacked by wolves.’
‘But there was no proof that they were kidnapped, and nothing was ever found.’
‘Wolves will not eat all of a corpse. If wolves had attacked them, there would have been traces – splinters of bone, and the stomach and intestines would be left.’
I don’t know quite what to say to this. I wonder if he knows these macabre details because he has seen them.
‘But’, he goes on, ‘I have never known wolves to attack without being provoked. We have not been attacked, and there have been wolves watching us.’
‘Are you trying to frighten me, Mr Parker?’ I say, with a careless smile, even though he is ahead of me and cannot see my expression.
‘There is no reason to be afraid. The dogs react as there are wolves about, in the evening especially. And we are still here.’
He tosses this over his shoulder as if it were a casual observation about the weather, but I keep glancing behind me, to see if anything is following us, and I am more anxious to stay close to the sled.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney is set in Canada in 1867. It caused a minor stir when it won the 2006 Costa first novel award after it was revealed that its author had never visited the country. All her research was conducted at the British Library. Reading The Tenderness of Wolves I often wished I hadn’t known this; there’s a tendency to overlook many of the novel’s qualities in trying to spot flaws in Penney’s authenticity. So a word of advice if you haven’t yet read the book – don’t embark on an authenticity audit. Penney has never visited Canada, but she’s also never been to 1867, and who was it who said that the past is a foreign country?

Stef Penney: The Tenderness of Wolves

I must admit that it took me a long time to settle into The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a subtle piece of work that portrayed 1867 Canada convincingly to me as a sparsely populated country yet to find a real identity, with settlers from different parts of the world living alongside the native American Indians. It’s a perfect setting for Penney to explore physical and spiritual isolation, with some characters forcing themselves into the inhospitable and bleak winter landscape in bids of escape or missions of discovery, while others remain trapped in remote outposts, succumbing to addiction and madness. It takes commitment to persevere with and fully appreciate this novel, but it’s effort with a very rewarding outcome.

I’m not going to go too deeply into the plot of The Tenderness of Wolves. A man is murdered. Another is suspected. The suspect, his accusers and his defenders all embark on their own personal journeys to find the truth. There is also a background story; two girls disappeared several years previously and, despite extensive searches, were never found. As searches and discoveries take place, the harsh weather always lurks menacingly in the background, along with the wolves who may or may not be watching and circling in the distance. The novel also acts as a lament for the past, personified by the history and integrity of the American Indian, already fading at the time of the book’s setting.

There are a wealth of intriguing characters who, although they don’t immediately jump off the page, develop into complex and believable people. Donald Moody, the young officer thrown into the deep end of the Jammet murder case; Mrs Ross, haunted by her disturbing spell in an asylum; Francis, still only seventeen but already troubled by his memories; the enigmatic Stewart; the mysterious Mr Parker; the pathetically sad Nesbit and Mr Sturrock, a man with an intriguing mystery of his own to solve. There are many others too numerous to mention in this richly populated story.

The Tenderness of Wolves isn’t perfect. Penney is over-reliant on coincidence, and some of the threads in the novel are left unresolved. Mrs Ross, although fascinating, remains ambiguous and puzzling, and the reasons for Jammet’s murder are ultimately ungratifying. I’m not giving away any spoilers; decide for yourself if you’re satisfied with the overall resolution – I’m willing to overlook my slight disappointments.

The Costa success no doubt boosted the reputation of this novel, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when I read such a well crafted and intelligent book in the bestseller lists, albeit one that’s far superior in tone, character and atmosphere than it is in plot. It made me think of the past, our memories and the people we have to interact with – things, at times, that are all foreign countries. Recommended.

Hmmm … a novel about people living in that time period, in a remote landscape, sounds very appealing. I’m interested in “frontier” type novels.

Dorothy W.    Friday March 23, 2007   

I’ve been wondering about this book. Thanks for your thoughtful review (I’m one of those readers that doesn’t think the author has to actually go to the place where the book is set!! With the Internet, you can “visit” almost any place in the world!). This one goes on my wish list :)

Wendy    Saturday March 24, 2007   

Dorothy and Wendy: yes it is definitely worth reading, and ‘frontier’ novels have always appealed to me too.

The Book Tower    Sunday March 25, 2007   

Thanks for sharing this interesting review.

Kevin S    Monday March 26, 2007   

OK. This book moves to the top of my stack.

Fay    Friday March 30, 2007   

I enjoyed this book in parts but am totally flummoxed by the ending. What does Mrs Ross mean when she says, ‘You have used it often enough’? What is her name, that Parker has inadvertently used it so frequently?

John    Friday April 13, 2007   

Kevin and Fay: I hope you enjoy it.

John: I didn’t want to give away too much about the ending in my review but you’re right – it is puzzling!

The Book Tower    Monday April 16, 2007   

Loved this book .I’d recommended it to our reading group before reading all of it which is always a risky option.There seems to be some unresolved plotlines
and is Mrs Ross’ name the same as the dog?

wendy    Wednesday April 18, 2007   

Wendy: yes I would think this an excellent choice for a reading group. I’m intrigued over this ‘name’ business and am going to have to reread the ending!

The Book Tower    Wednesday April 18, 2007   

I think this book is probably quite suitable for reading groups but I was not majorly impressed. The setting in Canada was convincing enough, I suppose (I have never been there, either) but it made me think of Margaret Atwood. Stef Penny is clearly nothing like Atwood and I don’t think she is trying to be. It is just too bad that I kept thinking of the acclaimed Canadian author as I was reading a first novel by someone who had only previously written for film and TV.

Juan    Thursday April 19, 2007   

Juan: strange that you should mention Atwood because I keep making comparisons with her from some of the other books I’ve been reading, although not this one!

The Book Tower    Thursday April 19, 2007   

I too was left with loads of questions which seemed unresolved at the end of the book.

There seemed to be too many different plots and stories going on which at the end of the book seem to be irrelevant and pointless.

The book however does grip you.

Duncan    Saturday April 21, 2007   

Duncan: well this book is certainly up for debate, and yes I do wonder about the unresolved parts of the book. It makes me question whether Penney has chosen to be deliberately obscure.

The Book Tower    Saturday April 21, 2007   

regarding, “You have used (my name) often enough:

re-read p.170.

There is a lot in this book that you only pick up with the second time of reading.

Val    Monday April 23, 2007   

Val: I reread this page and that’s an incredibly obscure clue. I don’t know how anyone could spot that on first reading.

It’s not a bad thing though that a book is complex enough to demand a second reading, which is something I’ll be doing…

The Book Tower    Tuesday April 24, 2007   

Although I too found the plot untidy and unnecessarily obscure at times, I couldn’t put the book down and read it in one sitting (on an 11 hour flight!)

Regarding the name, I think the clues are perfectly clear on page 165 – the “sentimental affinity” , the “symmetry between the two dogs and the two humans”, and the last sentence of that paragraph.

Jenny    Thursday April 26, 2007   

Jenny: thanks for your comment. After rereading parts of the novel I’ve seen things I didn’t see before. Time for a follow up review at some point…

The Book Tower    Thursday April 26, 2007   

I think there is another explanation for the “name” sentence at the end, nothing to do with the dogs’ names (which had escaped me totally), and which I’ve emailed Stephen to avoid posting a spoiler.

Maxine    Thursday April 26, 2007   

Maxine: thanks for your interesting email. I’ve responded!

The Book Tower    Thursday April 26, 2007   

I’ve just read Tenderness of Wolves for our local book club. If I had read it purely for enjoyment, then I don’t think I would have noticed the inconsistencies (apart from where did Mrs Ross meet Mr Ross, what did the asylum incident add to the story, just why was Jammet killed if the whereabouts of the furs was already known etc). The author conjures up 1867 Canada so well, creates just the right atmosphere, carries the reader along with just the right pace, for all the inconsistencies to fade away at the time of reading. It was only afterwards, in thinking of discussion points for the book club that questions arose. And the biggest plus point for me was that she conjured up a thoroughly believable picture of 1867 Canada without a long list of factual evidence (something I truly hate in historical fiction). I really do not need evidence that an author has researched the subject. I expect an author to evoke the landscape of the past sufficiently for me to believe and Stef Penney did just that.

Dianne Seale    Monday April 30, 2007   

The Tenderness of Wolves – I agree with Diane Seale. Oh, how the novel needs editing. It is messy. The author is desperate to give us all the information she has available – EDIT.

Sheila    Wednesday May 30, 2007   

Doesn’t Mrs Ross withhold her name from Parker in order to distance herself from him and as a sign to him and to us, the reader, that although she loves him, she isn’t going to declare her love and will go back to Angus, and to her former life? There’s more about the significance of first names isn’t there? I need to re-read it. I loved it!

hilary trengrouse    Tuesday June 12, 2007   

It’s a subtle book and a second reading reveals what you may have missed or misinterpreted the first time around. Another read is worth it if only to appreciate the skill with which Stef Penney has put it all together. I think we’ve become a bit too accustomed to Hollywood-style plots where everything is signposted in triplicate before being neatly tied up and sealed with a marriage… Life’s not really like that and it’s all the richer for it – just like this book.

Ed    Thursday June 21, 2007   

Ed: That’s a very valid point. I find books (and films too) where everything is too neatly tied up and explained a bore. I like a few loose ends, or things I don’t fully understand that make me want to go back and reread.

A book like The Tenderness of Wolves opens up good debate that a lesser novel wouldn’t.

The Book Tower    Friday June 22, 2007   

Have to admit its a very slow read.
Leaves you with the feeling that time could be better spent on reading something else. Certainly wasn’t a page turner for me. Felt a little bit dissapointed as the outline on the back of the book made it sound so promising.

JO    Monday June 25, 2007   

I really enjoyed this book, which was recommended to me by my mother.
I am fourteen years old and I must admit that I did struggle to work out the killer until it became obvious, wheras my mother tells me she knew just after half way through. I don’t believe her, however, as she is no more itelligent than I.
I did find it hard work at the beginning to get into the book, however when Mrs Ross and Parker reach the place of Norwegian habitants, (of which i have forgotten its name…), I was hooked.
As for the Mrs Ross and Parker name thing…i don’t get it at all.

Beth    Tuesday July 10, 2007   

Thanks for commenting Beth – my youngest reader I think! Glad you enjoyed this book – and I was hooked around the same part too.

The Book Tower    Wednesday July 11, 2007   

I finished the book only last night, and came here because I googled “what is Mrs Ross’ last name”! (Thanks for the clues)
It took me a while to really get gripped by it but, for the last couple of nights I’ve gone to bed early because I was desperate to get back to Canada!

Also, I liked that the ends were left loose.

(It put me in mind of James Meek’s ‘People’s Act of Love’)

[ps I’m a different beth]

beth    Friday August 10, 2007   

I agree with Hillary (11 June) about Mrs. Ross not sharing her name. She loves Parker but realized there is no future. She loves her son and wants to love Angus again.

Betsie    Tuesday August 28, 2007   

Her husband started to call her Rhu….a pet name or whatever…I have reread pgs 165 & 170 and unless my book is different I still have no clue….

Cherie    Tuesday September 4, 2007   

Loved the book until I got to the end. I sure wish someone would tell me Mrs. Ross’s first name, because I am not getting any clues whatsoever. The ending left too many unanswered questions. I don’t even know why Mrs. Ross went to Jammett’s cabin in anger in the first section of the book. Who on earth was Half-Man?

Gwen    Wednesday September 5, 2007   

I’ve just finished the book and loved it but I can’t fathom what the title is about? Is it an ironical statement – comparing humans with the shadowy wolves !?
Regarding the name thing I hadn’t spotted the reference on p170 before and tho’ I can see it now I think she wanted to remain Mrs Ross to him because although she loved him what else could she do?

Anita Varey    Monday October 8, 2007   

Dear readers,

How, do you think, is the title related to the contents/plot of the book? Any ideas? Will be grateful for help.


Katarzyna    Monday October 8, 2007   

Parker pointedly called her Mrs. Ross through the whole book. I believe she was refering to her name as “Mrs. Ross”, meaning: another man’s wife, and a life she would be returning to.

I did enjoy the book and the crafting of charaters and the subtle humor.

anne    Sunday October 14, 2007   

Wow – thanks for all of your comments. It’s so long since I’ve read the book now that I find it hard to answer some of your questions. But it was certainly a haunting and worthwhile read.

The Book Tower    Sunday November 11, 2007   

just read the book and like a lot of posters i was intriuged by the name incident so googled and got here. thank you val. very subtle. i even remembered thinking at the time oh right thats her first name. loved the book. maybe a few too many coincidences and characters but hey those are minor quibbles. SPOILER maybe the title is a reference to the parker and ross relationship. he is the wolf they watch from the tent. she is the dog her namesake. metaphorically speaking. he represents the wilderness symbolised by the wolf.

chris    Sunday February 22, 2009   

Just finished this book after starting it for the third time. I could not get in to it, but once I did, I could not put it down. Enjoyed it very much but was somewhat dissapponted at the ending and also googled to find out the deal about her first name. Still don’t get it, but enjoyed the book very much.

Helen    Tuesday March 17, 2009   

Just finished the book and i enjoyed the book immensely. I read over a few of the other comments here and was surprised that there were people who did not like it. It held my interest from the very beginning. There were a couple of people who thought it was too confusing or that there was too much going on. My response to that is that maybe they normally just read those short romance novels. No substance to them whatsoever. This book had lots of twists and turns just as it should for a well written book. I look forward to reading others of Ms. Penny’s. Guess i pay attention more because i caught her name the first time around. Pay attention people!!! I recommend this book.

Rainy Bryant    Monday September 17, 2018   

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