To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
|To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: An absorbing read, that does have the misfortune of hanging its many riches on perhaps too familiar a frame.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 480||Date: August 2016|
|Publisher: Tinder Press|
|External links: Author's website|
If you're going to go pioneering across unexplored lands, at least be prepared to accept what you seek – namely, what you've never seen before. That lesson seems quite obvious, but back in the time of 1885 Allen Forrester is a little too naïve to heed it. A career soldier, he is tasked with scouring the potential of the Wolverine River that threads south to the shores of Alaska, even though the Russians (who of course used to own the Territory) have had all manner of lethal encounters with those already living there, and even though a major stretch of the river has to be traversed in winter when entirely frozen over, as the cliffs either side are too impenetrable. Allen leaves a much younger, new bride behind – and right from the get-go his journals force him to pen words about strange happenings, strange encounters and things of legend coming to life. Like I say, what he's never seen before…
Coming as a hugely anticipated sophomore novel, To the Bright Edge of the World has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Noted for a command of the mysterious and a pitch-perfect evocation of historical Alaska, the author's first shifted copious units, and this, in being not too different, is due to be similarly popular. To my mind, it wasn't quite perfect, however. It boils down to a stranger in a strange land tale, where an innocent is forced to try and accept the magical, mystical things in front of him. And however richly and literately this has been dressed up, those bare bones are quite well known by now.
The dressing up is where Ivey's qualities come to the fore. The telling is both complex and perfectly readable, even if we start with at least four different narrative timelines. We have Allen's private journals, and every few pages we drop back a couple of weeks to the diaries of Sophie his wife, both written to be lovingly read to each other when they're reunited. We also have flashbacks with multiple sources to the background behind the expedition, and on top of that we jump every few pages to the present day, or something like it, as two people write letters to each other discussing the nature and effect of Allen's legacy. The questions they ask are pertinent to us, considering how Alaska has changed since the 1880s, what links have reached across the years to prove the veracity of the diaries – and asking why they are so different from Allen's official reports.
Those differences come from the expected, slightly staid, Victorian-era approach Allen has to what he sees that he cannot understand, and they centre around a strange man in black – the very opposite of a routine angelic figure, as we're blatantly told at one point. This character has a habit of popping up just when least expected, always from the most unlikely direction, and of seemingly jumping through the air to perch on the tallest trees and buildings around. But that's not the only supernatural bent to this world, as the journey becomes successfully lengthy, and the historical world is so fully evoked.
So well evoked, that it's noticeable that people crossing huge and spring melt-fed rivers manage it without it being mentioned. But there's a lot more to the book than the slightly seen-it-before journey of Allen and his small gang of colleagues. Sophie provides a lot of content, and when forced to redefine her life at home on a military base almost becomes a pioneer on her own, starting a serious hobby that could have provided for a rich period novel by itself. I got the sense that if a book can successfully parallel a young Victorian woman's go-getting with that of her husband likewise going into the unknown, it has to be a volume of note. And fans of Ivey's will find no lack of riches in the writing – whether it be Sophie's definitely emotional side of things, or the clipped style of Allen's approach, using an ampersand at every opportunity.
I have to assume that females may well enjoy Sophie's pages more than Allen's – I lauded the author for nailing Allen's character, but honoured her for providing two points of interest either side of the gender divide. Another reason for being in Team Sophie is, to repeat, the familiarity of a lot of Allen's story, even if normally from more genre writing than this nuanced, literate piece. In providing such a well-rounded and authentic fantasy legend from the wilds of Alaska, Ivey shows no second-novel problems (although her blog testifies to a lengthy writing process) – I expect to see the volume everywhere when I visit the state a month after writing this, and in many other places as well.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
For more of humans coming up against each other and a remote, cold environment, we think you will enjoy My Last Continent by Midge Raymond.
You can read more book reviews or buy To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey at Amazon.com.
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