Firstly, an admission. I’ve been horribly ill for the last few weeks, apart from three days over my birthday, am still not quite right, and might have judged everything I’ve read accordingly.
This book was everywhere when I finished uni, a bit like Life of Pi was five years previous to that. It won the Costa book of the year in 2006, and the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Prize and was a massive bestseller. I never got round to reading it and fished it out of the suitcase a few months back. Set in Canada in 1867, a murder mystery with multi-character plotting and a fabulous woman lead you’d have thought I’d have loved this.
I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books that proves, like The Book Thief and Shadow of the Wind before it, that I Have No Soul, because I couldn’t get on with this book and it took me weeks to finally finish it, with a sense of relief, which is never good.
The story of the fall out from a brutal murder in a small Canadian settlement, and the country surrounding, the action switches between various people in the community and the ones surrounding it, with two first person narratives, the rest being third. The community is made up of various standards from frontier life novels, who reveal themselves to have hidden depths as the novel goes on. The ‘main’ character I suppose would be Mrs Ross, the women whose son is accused of murder. Mrs Ross, being in first person, is the one we know most about and empathise with most, but she’s also quite definitely an Unreliable Narrator.
As the journey into the wilderness after Francis Ross the suspect and later further into the wild, the epic emptiness of Canada is illustrated by beautiful sweeping endless prose. Parts of the initial stages of the journey are tense and exciting, but the momentum is instantly lost by introducing more and more story threads and angles and characters that are picked up and put down again. The ‘mystery’ part of the book-who killed the murdered trapper-isn’t really the main point, its more of an exploration of Canada, relations between the white settlers and the Native Americans (Canadians?) and the overall hold of the Hudson Bay Company, that for some reason acts as law.
If you like sweeping epic books then you’d love this, but I just found it endless, didn’t like any of the characters enough (apart from maybe Maria Knox) and wanted the story lines to converge at the end and they didn’t and after two weeks of reading and almost 500 pages I was a bit gutted that I couldn’t get on with this book.