The winner of this year's Costa (formerly Whitbread) prize for first novel, and winner of the overall prize, is a suspenseful, atmospheric novel set in Canada. It is 1867, and the small settlement of Caulfield is witness to a murder. Laurent Jammet, a trapper, trader and loner, is found dead in his bed by his neighbour and the book's main character, Mrs Ross.
Over the next few days, we learn about several of the people who live in the settlement, and those who travel to and from it. We also learn that this is not the first untimely death or accident that the inhabitants have experienced: some years ago, two young girls went out picking berries and never returned. Their mother eventually died of grief, and after years of searching for them, their father died also. The local physician, Doc Wade, was found drowned in Dove River a couple of years previously. Now Francis, Mrs Ross's son, has also vanished, yet his father seems distant and unconcerned.
This cloud of suspicion covers the small town like a blanket. Inside it, we see the lives and characters of the Ross and the Knox families, other neighbours, and the Company men who come to investigate Jammet's death – McKinley, Moody and associates – and their interactions with the locals. (The Company is revealed as the Hudson Bay Company). A trapper friend of Jammet's called Parker, half Indian and half white, is arrested for the crime, but he does not seem a likely suspect. Mrs Ross is desperate to find her son, another friend of the dead man, before he too is suspected.
By this point, although I was enjoying the book, I thought that there were too many characters in it to be able to fix any firmly in my mind or to care very much about any of them. Once the journey started, however, the book began to exert a strong spell on me. The developing relationship between Parker and Mrs Ross, together with her sad tale, is very moving. Parker tells her of an abandoned wolf cub he once found and bought up as a dog, until "It remembered it was a wolf, not a pet. It stared into the distance. Then one day it was gone. The Chippewa have a word for it – it means "the sickness of long thinking". You cannot tame a wild animal, because it will always remember where it is from, and yearn to go back."
This phrase, "the sickness of long thinking", is the key to this wonderful book. The story turns into a book of journeys by most of the characters, and by these journeys we come to know their true natures. Several, but not all, of the mysteries, old and new, are eventually solved, and several of the characters come to know themselves and their families more deeply.
Perhaps there are slightly too many elements in the book than are strictly necessary: the Norwegian settlement and the story of Line is the least successful aspect, to my mind. And, given the number of criss-crossing journeys, the book would certainly have benefited from a map. But these are very minor quibbles. The book is brilliant – I have not done it full justice by this brief review.