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excellent, gripping thriller
on 12 February 2007
Stef Penney's debut has attracted some hostility from the literary establishment on winning the Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize as Book of the Year,largely because "nobody has read it" and the author researched her subject in libraries rather than by trekking through the wastes of Canada. Well, stuff them. It's a terrific novel, and the judges were absolutely right to prefer it over Boyd's latest or even the charming memoir about a happy East End childhood.
Mrs. Ross, the narrator, is a Scottish pioneer and ex-asylum inmate who discovers the body of a French trapper, murdered and scalped in his house near Dove river. Her beautiful, adopted 17 year old son Francis has disappeared, and so has the victim's money and a piece of bone which may prove the "Indians" had a written culture. A half-breed Cherokee trapper is arrested and beaten up to try nad force a confession out of him, but the magistrate has more compassion than the fur-trading company to whom all are in thrall, and releases him. Mrs Ross and Parker embark on an epic journey, tracking her son and another, fainter set of footprints, across snow and ice. In their wake are more Company hunters, bent on tracking them down...
It is a wonderful story, set in 1867 and featuring an agoraphobic heroine who must overcome her fears (and her growing passion for her guide) to find justice. In many ways it reminded me of Ursula le Guin's masterpiece, The Left-Hand of Darkness, for though this is meticulously researched historical fiction, not fantasy, it shares the same sense of passion and desperation growing on the extreme edges of civilisation. All the characters are well-drawn, and though the narrative switches between first and third person, it is consistently interesting and beautifully written. My one complaint is that the Line subplot, about some religious Scandanavian settlers, isn't really necessary. It's about racial prejudice, mother love, greed, illicit passion and what happens to people when they spend too much time alone. Whether you like detective novels or literary fiction it's unmissable.