Costa Book of the Year 2006 

One benefit of belonging to a face2face book group is the opportunity given to revisit an “old” favourite.  September 2007’s book was Stef Penney’s Costa Book of the Year winning novel, one which I originally devoured in three sittings earlier this year, prior to its win.

 Well, I loved it then and I loved it even more second time around.  This will definitely be one of my top 5 reads of the year.  

It is 1867 and Laurent Jammet is found – his throat cut, scalped also – in his wooden hut.  17-year old Francis Ross goes missing at the same time.  Search parties are sent to find him for he becomes a suspect – one of many.  Most of the motives centre around Jammet’s business dealings for he is part of a consortium attempting to break the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly in the fur trade.  This mystery is good, very good indeed.

As the search parties trek through the Canadian outback Penney introduces us to a colourful cast of characters, a religious community with an adulterous relationship at the heart, the indigenous nation held in servitude by booze and the unscrupulous representatives of the Hudson Bay Company, further mystery and murder, ill-fated romances (some gentle, others not so)  and last, but not least, the wintery Canadian landscape.  Not the pretty wintery landscapes of the imagination, either.  Penney’s landscape is harsh, brutal, and very dangerous.

The snow does not stop, nor does the shrieking wind.  … It is pitch dark, but I do not think that I will close my eyes all night; what with the howling of the wind and the battering the tent is getting; it billows and trembles like a live thing.  I am terrified that we will be buried in the snow, or that the walls (against which the tent has been pitched) will collapse  and trap us underneath; I imagine all sorts of awful fates as I lie with racing heart and wide stretched eyes.  But I must have slept, because I dream, although I do not think I have dreamt in weeks.

Suddenly I awake to find – as I think – the tent has gone.  The wind is screaming like a thousand banshees and the air is full of snow, blinding me.  I cry out, I think, but the sound goes unheard in the maelstrom.  Parker and Moody are both kneeling, fighting to close the mouth of the tent where it has been torn free.  They eventualy manage to secure it again, but snow has gathered in drifts inside the tent.  There is snow on our clothes and in our hair.  Moody lights the lamp; he is shaken.  Even Parker looks slight less composed than normal.

Of course, since her win, much has been made of Penney’s agrophobia and the fact that she has never visited Canada; her novel, researched in the British Library.  It’s testament to both her research and imagination that her Canada is fully realised.  And the silent tribute she makes in naming two of her characters, Donald and Susannah, after original Canadian pioneers – shows she is not unaware of her debt to the material they left behind.

If her landscape is strong, so too are the complexities of the human relationships, none more so than those within the Ross family.  Angus, the head is a “sour dour old Scot” (to quote one of the book group), alienated from his son and incapable of showing affection to his wife. Mrs Ross, arguably the main character of the novel, is living through the disillusionment of middle-age.  Yet she’s a strong brave woman, setting off in the company of a half-breed tracker, William Parker, to find her son, never doubting in his innocence for a moment – although we as readers do.  The behaviour of the characters  is quite puzzling at times, yet there is an unbearable poignancy as their motivations are gradually revealed.  I swallowed hard when Angus’s face finally “melted”.

It’s hard to do this novel justice in a short review, there is just so much content. It’s epic in scale and very ambitious in range.  Perhaps too ambitious?  Certainly there were those in the group who thought the novel needed pruning.   Another criticism was that, although the Jammett mystery is solved, other mysteries are not and there are enough loose ends to provide a sequel.  But these are the criticisms of others – they certainly aren’t mine.  I enjoyed every page of the 466 that Penney delivered.  In fact, I would be quite happy to read another 466.  Here’s hoping that a sequel is more than a suspicion and that someone will turn this into a great film …

****1/2

Perversely not the full *****.  For the title is one of the unsolved mysteries.  The wolves, while not aggressive towards humans, aren’t particularly tender either.  Explanations in comments please!

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