Despite having had some fallow periods when I couldn't seem to read anything but unmemorable crime novels, I have read some great books this year. Soon it will be time to make some kind of list, and though it may not be a very long one, I can tell you for a fact that this novel will definitely be on it.
I have been an admirer of Stef Penney since her brilliant debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, a thrilling adventure story set in the trackless snowy wastes of Canada. I also loved her second, The Invisible Ones, a fascinating story of the history and present day lives of gypsies. Now she's back in the snow with this, her third novel, much of which takes place in Greenland and is about as snowbound as you could hope to get.
The novel starts with a prologue set in 1948. Flora Mackie, a Scottish woman in her seventies, is rather dubiously participating in a publicity expedition to the Arctic Circle, the scene of her early years when she was known to the press as the Snow Queen. As the main part of the novel proceeds we learn of her childhood, during which she many times accompanied her father, a whaleboat captain, on his trips to the far north, and fell in love with the bleak, empty landscapes and with its people, the Inuit. Her feeling of belonging there leads her to study meteorology and, eventually, to lead an exploratory expedition.
Meanwhile, in New York, a young man named Jakob de Beyn is studying mineralogy, with a view to participating in explorations of the Arctic. The two of them finally meet in Greenland, when Jakob has joined the group led by the ambitious and fame-hungry Lester Armitage and Flora's team is camped not far away. Flora has achieved her position as leader by means of some hard work and some luck. She has married a syphilitic Irishman who has raised the capital and intends to lead the expedition, but an accident confines him to bed and Flora takes it on alone. Her early familiarity with the landscape and the people is invaluable, but there are tremendous dangers and hardships to be faced - at various times the explorers suffer from frostbite and starvation, and there are several fatal accidents. Penney evokes the extremes of cold and isolation wonderfully well - the noise of a glacier is 'insensate and violent: cloth ripping, artillery fire, a grand piano falling from a second-storey window' and iceberg is described as 'scored with clefts that glowed deep blue above and at its water-worn foot, a pale, silky green. A ruined masterpiece from a vanished civilisation'.
There is so much to enjoy and marvel at in this terrific novel, but at the centre of it is the relationship between Flora and Jakob. This begins with a powerful coming together in London during which several days are spent mostly in bed and in a state of euphoric happiness. But things don't run smoothly after they are forced go their separate ways, and Flora gets cold feet when her husband becomes ill and needs her care. Luckily for them, and for the reader, they do come together again at last and spend a blissful period in an Edenic valley in the far north before they are forced to part again. There is, indeed, a lot of sex in this book, but it is done with great honesty and lack of prudery.
So yes, the love story is enthralling, but so too is all the wonderfully researched background to the novel. Flora's London life is fascinating - her home life and friendships are beautifully developed but she is also a strong, intelligent woman at the turn of the century, and able to educate herself and to lead polar expeditions, though her position as leader is questioned and mocked by the male polar explorers. There's also some wonderful detail of Jakob's young years in New York City, and his struggles to get educated and to make something of himself. Then there's the question of the Inuit peoples, and the way they are viewed by the white settlers. Both Flora and Jakob make good friends among the local people, but Armitage and others view them as little more than slaves - they are happy to sleep with the accommodating women, but Armitage is delighted to transport a small group of them back to New York to display like exhibits in a museum, with dire consequences. The framing device - Flora in her seventies, being interviewed by a young reporter in the Arctic - is threaded through the novel, and makes it possible for us to learn, or at least the guess at, the eventual fate of both Jakob and Armitage, though the true facts remain a mystery.
I listened to this on Audible, and very well read it was by its pair of narrators. Listen to it or read, it, but don't miss out. Superb, and highly recommended.