The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney was one of the successes of 2006, when it won the Costa Prize. Set in mid-nineteenth century Canada, the premise of the plot is simple. A man is discovered brutally murdered in his shack and at the same time a young, troubled man from the town has gone missing. The young man’s mother sets out to find him and prove his innocence, tracking through the depths of a Canadian winter with only the help of a native Canadian trapper. The story is a little more complicated than that, but not hugely so. It is this simple premise that is used to expose the attitudes, brutality and contradictions of society at the time and that is done extremely well without overstatement.
The novel could be read as reworking of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, only this time the wolf isa tender wolf, rather than a big bad wolf. And that is what makes this a life-affirming story in spite of its rather bleak setting. In spite of the hardships, it is a novel that places humanity at its centre and allows it to triumph in the face of brutality.
Had I not read the blurb on the cover beforehand, I would have been surprised to find that this was from the hand of a first-time novelist. It is a confident debut and the author has managed to effectively write a modern novel, whilst retaining a sense of the authentic nineteenth century voice. My only criticism was that I felt it to be a little too long than was necessary at over 450 pages. I’m not sure that the effectively simple plot might have been even more effectively executed had the story been told more concisely. At times it seemed to move a little too slowly and some judicious editing might have helped. Nonetheless, this is a very impressive debut and one to watch out for.