Monday, 19 February 2018

Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

When the weather is hot, I often like to read a book set in ice and snow, so of course I picked up the latest Stef Penney, whose debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Award. Under a Pole Star is about Arctic explorers Flora Mackie, the daughter of a Scottish whaler, and New York geologist Jakob de Beyn.

As a child, Flora visited Greenland with her father so often she can speak the native language of the Inuit she befriended there. A journalist discovers her story and she becomes known as The Snow Queen. She will require an education and sponsorship if she wants to return as a scientist, which means making some difficult decisions. Who will want to fund or join an expedition led by a woman? This is the late 1800s after all.

Jakob is fascinated by ice, and glaciers in particular. He joins an expedition led by polar explorer, Lester Armitage, a difficult man whose obsession with fame verges on madness and leads to a terrible accident. But through this Jakob meets Flora and their immediate connection drives much of the plot.

The story see-saws between the viewpoints of Flora and Jakob, both of whom are immensely likeable characters. But the novel starts out in 1948 with a reporter interviewing Flora about the old days and we learn that Jakob and Armitage had long ago mysteriously disappeared. This was potentially a problem for me – the risk of developing empathy with a central character you know is doomed before you even meet him.

My other problem with the book is its length. At 600 pages, I felt a little judicious editing, especially of the lengthy graphic sex scenes, might have produced a tighter plot-line, and given more prominence to the interesting themes around exploration, colonisation and women’s place in society that affect the fate of the protagonists.

Stef Penney is a terrific writer with a gift for creating amazing settings and powerful characters. Under a Pole Star is well worth reading, though you might like to skim a few chapters here and there.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Under a Pole Star

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