Thursday, August 09, 2007

Stef Penney's Rattling Good Yarn

Got an e-mail from someone in the publicity department of Simon & Schuster a week or two back asking me if I'd "take another look" at Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves on my blog since the book has just been launched in the US. It quite amazed me that my blog, tapped in on a keyboard in Malaysia, might help to shift some copies on the other side of the world.

Well, the book was sitting on my TBR shelf already, looking forlorn, so what was I to do?

As it turned out, this book was just the read I needed: a rattling good yarn I could slip into my bag and read in odd moments between visiting my student-teachers in schools.

You'll probably remember that the novel won this year's Costa First Novel Award, and although it's set in Canada, the author suffered so badly from agoraphobia that she was unable to travel there and instead did her research in the British Library.

Not that that matters. I remember Kunal Basu at the Ubud Readers' and Writers' festival last year talking about writing his historical novels. It was impossible for him to visit the places where he set his novels because they no longer exist. He saw this in a positive light:
What excites is inaccessibility in real terms, but accessibility in the imagination.
Stef Penney sets her novel in mid C19th Canada and chucks in a whole load of ingredients ... murder, mysterious disappearances, codes to be cracked (one which may hold the secret of an ancient written Native American language and the other a fortune in furs), love stories (gay and straight).

If the story has a weakness it is that I think the author tried to cram in too much, and in parts, especially where the backgrounds of various characters were fleshed out, it seemed terribly rushed. There were an awful lot of threads to bring together by the end of the book, and whilst Penney largely managed this, some parts were left hanging.

I was sad that we did not have a chance to see the protagonist Mrs. Ross (what is her first name??) reunited with her adopted 17 year old son Francis after she finally (and how could she really miss all the clues?) realises that he is gay and that the murdered man was his lover.

And why was she in an asylum in Scotland ... and what does that have to do with the main drift of the story?

And why was there so little about the wolves?

The cast of characters is also very large - and some came alive rather more than others. Francis intrigued me. I liked the warm-hearted but bumbling accountant, Donald Moody, still trying to find his feet with the Hudson Bay Company.

But I loved the huge and ugly half-Mohawk, half-English trapper William Parker, and was so glad that Mrs Ross ended up warming her frostbitten fingers in his armpits ... even if I'd have liked something a lot steamier to melt the frozen Tundra.

Some characters didn't rise very far of the page though, including Knox and his wife and daughters. Others were well drawn but didn't have enough of a role in the book in my opinion, e.g. Jacob and Sturrock.

I also felt that the narration worked best in Mrs. Ross' first person, and got annoyed with the godlike omniscience with which the other chapters were narrated.

But as I say, a very good read which I'd recommend as I think many of you will enjoy it.

And I wouldn't be surprised to see it makes New York Times bestseller list.


Unknown said...

Talking about shifting copies on the other side of the world - I read your entry about Tan Twan Eng and was interested in A Gift of Rain. I cannot find a new copy through Barnes & Noble or (US). I'll have to ask my aunt to send me a copy from the UK.

bibliobibuli said...

wow! that's good! as far as i know it hasn't been published in the US yet but i guess it will be a matter of time. sometimes it takes a few months.

in malaysia we are lucky because we get both british and american editions

KayKay said...

Sharon dear, so the obvious question for me to ask is this: awards and plaudits aside, is the Company Of Wolves readable? Or is this another case of stripping what has the potential to be a ripping good yarn of all the elements that make it thrilling in the first place, like flow, plot and suspense and replacing it with pretentious prose, a glacial pace and ponderous characters who bore you crapless with philosophical ruminations? Does this wolf have bite? I remember somebody reviewing it in the Star (forget the name) and not being very impressed.

bibliobibuli said...

why do i always hear you in my head pulling it apart at a book club meets? maybe because you do it so well!

i went back and found the review.

this isn't an exhilarating thriller of a read, though i though it well-plotted, ... albeit as i say with hanging threads and slowed down by too many characters who end up not doing enough.

but it is well written and certainly not over literary, and i enjoyed it and got wrapped up in the story and didn't want to put it down towards the end.

(but then you never ever like the books i like and we are doomed to fight and fight. so no, don't read it.)

alan cheong makes some good points and i found it v. interesting to read what he says about penney as a scriptwriter. i think this book will be filmed and will look damned good on the big screen given the right cast and director. maybe you should just wait for the movie?

KayKay said...

HaHa! I would wait for the movie, if my faith in screen adaptations weren't already eroded to the point of non-existence!
But anyway, I've violated my own rule of not ripping a book until I've read it completely. So, maybe I should stop being a prick and give it a go. Am still in a grouchy mood after having to endure Cormac McCarthy's literary pretensions to the dystopian fiction genre! And yes, I have commented on this in another of your posts so excuse my repetitive ramblings! Am sharpening my claws for the meet this Monday hehehehe...

bibliobibuli said...

i am so looking forward to monday's viscous clash of opinions!!