Sunday, July 15, 2007

Authentic, atmospheric prose thrills

When Stef Penney (pictured) revealed that her Costa prize-winning The Tenderness of Wolves, set in nineteenth century Canada, had been written without a visit to the country, it caused a minor uproar in international literary circles. People wondered how could a writer, who had never set foot on the landmass, position her novel in the snowy wilderness of the Canadian high plains? "As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there," said one critic in the Guardian.

Well, you needn't be so bothered. Penny's prose is so authentic, so very atmospheric in capturing the angels and demons of the country that it is hard to imagine that she wrote this book after doing all her research in the British Library.

The novel is a first-class murder mystery, which must be doubly commended considering the setting and the time (1867) leave no chance to employ any urban noirish trappings. After Mrs. Ross discovers the dead body of her neighbour Laurent Jammet in his hut, the sleepy village of Caulfield wakes to the presence of a killer in its midst. Mrs. Ross's brooding son, Francis is found to have disappeared on the day of the murder, and the community must look within to seek answers to a brutal mishap.

Yet, things are not what they seem on the surface, as a Pandora's Box of missing people and puzzling goings-on is opened, into which Penny takes us headlong with her shimmering prose. Corporate politics and the lucrative fur trade provide the intriguing backdrop against which the mystery gets resolved. Besides weaving a smart storyline, Penny draws out well-delineated characters. From Mrs. Ross who decides to follow the trail of the murderer to another important character who attempts to break a secret code, the women in the novel are strong-willed and fierce. The men, while being the main perpetrators of the actions, are, at best, puppets in their hands. There is also a luminous take on a gay relationship the description of whose first sexual escapade burns the page.

In fact, one could even say that there are far too many strands to the book than are necessary, especially the doomed escape of one woman whose presence seems restricted to convincing the reader of Francis's sensitive side. Penny, in that sense, has paid service to her other profession as screenwriter. She perhaps hopes for the various threads to provide a cinematic blend for an interesting script.

Given the depth and breadth of this wonderful work, that shouldn't be much work.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Picture Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

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