I believe it is so true what they say about how the title of a book is extremely important in terms of whether it goes on to become a commercial success. Serious thought must go into the decision about "the name over the door of the shop" and everyone involved in the process must be aware of what's at stake. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney is one of those novels that probably found a place on my bookshelf simply on the strength of the title. Is it just me who finds it intriguing and embracing? Before buying the book I hadn't actually heard about the story or the writing. I don't even think I paid attention to the reviews I came across. The title alone - the catchiness and the warmth of it - echoed in my upper-floors and then obviously hung around. And that was enough for me to buy it. I even looked past the fact that this book is 450 pages long and is set in 1867 in Canada, a time and place that I don't consciously chase - and that's not to say there is any reason not to. The title alone drew me in.
It is funny then how the title became a bit of an issue as I made my way through this book. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually had expected to read a little bit more about wolves. I had expected to at least come across something of substance that linked wolves to the main story. An analogy? Symbolism? Something between the lines? Something at all? Was I wrong to have these expectations? Yes, there are a few scenes - like the opening scene - where wolves are talked about. But the tenderness of wolves? It almost felt as though wolves were written in as bit parts after the novel had been written, to justify the title. Did I miss something? Did something not get published in my version? Maybe this is what happens when a reader buys a book because he likes the title. He's invested in it; he wants some kind of reward.
That's not to say that I was only focused on discovering how the tenderness of wolves comes into things. The story in itself was reasonably gripping. A mother tries to prove that her son is not guilty of a terrible crime. There are many possible suspects. There is harsh, unforgiving terrain. There are mysterious twists and turns. It's actually a whodunnit when you boil it all down. The writing starts out as something quite complex and "literary" but is then snipped down to something I found to be quite ordinary once the plot took over.
But it's not just the plot that made this ordinary for me. There are so many points of view in this book that you really have to keep your wits about you. I counted at least 12 characters who are each given their own points of view in separate passages. It was very hard to keep up with everyone and to get close to them. Thank goodness there were separate sections to give each person their own space to express their point of view, otherwise the head-hopping would have left me quite exhausted. I actually started to doubt that I was following the right protagonist. Was I supposed to be considering one person as the main character? The author did try to make this clear by putting the passages of the crusading mother into the first person and the other sections into the third person. Again, there was obviously an attempt to keep things digestible, but in the end I did feel overwhelmed and dizzy. At the end of the day I spent so much time in more than 12 different heads that I didn't get close enough to anyone to care about the ending. The actual discovery of "whodunnit" turned out to be a damp squib. It was someone introduced late, who had no real role to play in the story and there was no great surprise or clever stitching of the plot.
This was a readable enough escape into the snow, for those who like trying to work out who the bad guy or bad gal is - never mind that you aren't rewarded after the search. There are certainly no fireworks and you don't want to howl at the moon afterwards. The title was great but I don't think the novel matched it. It goes without saying that I am still none the wiser about the tenderness of wolves, but then maybe that wasn't supposed to be the point; it was merely the title, after all.