Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
Flora’s father was a whaler with a land base in Dundee. On her mother’s death, instead of sending Flora to boarding school, he decides to take her with him into the Arctic Circle. Flora loves it and is furious when, on reaching eighteen, she is deemed “a smouldering match in a heap of tinder” (p78) and no longer permitted to accompany the men. Determined to revisit the climate and people she loves, Flora trains as a meteorologist and, while still a young woman, leads an expedition to the frozen north. There she meets New York geologist Jakob de Beyn, a member of a rival expedition led by the overambitious Lester Armitage who’s searching for new territory on which to plant the American flag.
Under a Pole Star is a story of love and obsession set in the golden age of exploration with a fair amount of well-written sex and some beautiful descriptions of icy landscapes, for example (p449):
The air is as clear as gin, and plays tricks – it turns a white Arctic hare into a polar bear, a black turd into a seal. Flora can make out the contours on a rock, miles away; she has the sense she could reach over and pick it up.
It’s also a meticulously-researched account of fictional research, exploring how the egos of both researchers and funders introduce an element of bias (or outright fraud, in some instances) and how Western researchers exploit people from less developed cultures (with a shocking museum visit reminiscent of Orphans of the Carnival). At almost 600 pages of fairly small print, it is a long read, but never boring. Thanks to Quercus books for my review copy.
As a writer, I did wonder about the authorial and editorial decisions that left this twice as long as the average novel. Not that I found obvious places where it might have been cut, and perhaps the success of Stef Penney’s debut, The Tenderness of Wolves, also set in an extremely cold climate, gave no need to worry about readers being put off by the length. I also wondered about the ending of part one of the novel at a point that looks like a “reversal” in the classical “hero’s journey” structure (Jakob has just discovered that a fact about his family is actually a fiction). The positioning suggests this is going to play an important part in the story but, although it does impact on Jakob to a degree, in the narrative it’s not a big deal. As a writer who isn’t a great fan of this structure but is nevertheless curious about it as a possible route to making her fiction more commercial, this puzzled me, although I doubt the average reader would notice. If you’re reading this as a writer, I’d be interested in your opinion.
Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes
As a boy, Con felt a “hollowness at the heart of things” stemming from the absence of a father in his life. He was drawn to the more confident Mark and his almost perfect family until the death of Mark’s younger sister pushed them apart again. Since then, he’s never quite got it together. One wonders whether his work at the wildlife reserve will provide the opportunity for redemption.
I was looking forward to reading Green Lion after enjoying Henrietta Rose-Innes’ debut, Nineveh. Although I can’t put my finger on why, her second novel didn’t grip me as much as her first (hence the shorter review). Thanks to Gallic books for my review copy. For another novel about reintroducing predators to the countryside, this time in England, see my review of The Wolf Border.