Wednesday, August 8, 2007


The novels I read this month took me to two vastly differing continents- the biting cold of Canada and the searing heat of India. They were both tales of resilience and both extremely good reads.

I was drawn to the first one by the title: “The Tenderness of Wolves” as I had recently been watching a fascinating documentary on two wildlife photographers who set up camp in the middle of a wolf pack and got to know the animals very well. It is a first novel by author Stef Penney, (Paperback: Quercus: 10.99) and she seems to be a confident and accomplished writer, reflected in the fact she has already won one award for this book. It tells the story of a Scots settler family in a remote settlement in 1867, when human beings really were living at the mercy of the wilderness. Narrated partly in the first person of Mrs Ross, we follow her outward journey to find her runaway adoptive son, Francis, as well as tracing an inner journey of her own reflections on her life. Francis has become involved with a local trapper, whose body is discovered in his cabin, and sparks an interesting and complex mystery, realistically grounded in the social; and political history of the Canadian pioneers. The novel has breathtaking descriptions of the landscape and man’s attempts to tame it, as well as fascinating comparisons of the wisdom of the native people versus the technology of the settlers.

I really liked Stef Penney’s characterisations, which are subtle and finely wrought. Her depiction of the central character of Mrs Ross is particularly convincing, I think because she places her up against the thing she most fears- the wilderness. The plot is exciting and not predictable and it was a great page-turner. I would recommend it for a holiday read, as it is likely to keep you engrossed, whilst being thought provoking.

In contrast I cannot honestly say I would recommend that you pack Rohinton Mistry’s “A fine balance” (Paperback: Faber and Faber: 10.99) when you are heading away. This probably sounds unfair, because I would have to agree with the reviewer from the Independent who is quoted on the cover of the book: “ A towering masterpiece by a writer of genius”. Mistry is India’s answer to Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky; he has produced a chronicle if Indian life in the 1970’s which is breathtaking in its scope and power. Outlining as it does throughout the book, the “fine balance” between hope and despair it paints a picture of four people who come to live together in the “city by the sea”. Mistry never actually names Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in the book, but by sheer coincidence the last national Geographic magazine had a cover feature on the shantytown of Dharawi that had grown up right beside Mumbai-
India’s number one business city. The photos and editorial in the magazine mirrored Mistry’s descriptions perfectly- the tragic thing is his novel was set in the seventies and nothing much seems to have changed.

The main characters, Dina Dalal, a middle aged widow and dressmaker, her lodger Maneck and the two tailors she employs, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakesh are masterfully drawn and most of the novel is taken up with their histories, juxtaposed with their struggles to make ends meet in the turbulent city. There is a ghoulish yet convincing political backdrop to the book, in which all figures of authority are completely corrupt, so that you feel the characters are being tossed around like puppets. Combined with the atrocities of the caste-system, it is bound to make for a hard tale to tell.

I think because Mistry helps the reader to engage with his characters so closely the last part of the book is difficult to read and I found it deeply distressing. That’s not to say I am sorry I read it – it was one of the best books I have read in many years. For anyone interested in India, politics or social justice it is an absolute must- Mistry has a unique gift and I intend to seek out his other work.

Janet Hawkins and the team have these books on offer in the Blessington Book Store, so please try and support your local book seller and pay her a visit- there’ some great summer reading in there- enjoy!


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