Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
|Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: Two 19th century explorers and a world very different from our own combine to make a story with hints of love and overtones of adventure. Epic in length and breadth – and well worth it.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 608||Date: November 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2017
1948: Elderly Flora Mackie is invited on a press trip to the North Pole; a trip that takes her back through her life. Flora remembers her childhood with her father on whaling ships in the seas around Greenland, her marriage born of ambition and misaligned lust and the result: the Arctic exploration team she led in the late 19th century. This was a trip that had many knock-on effects including death and love.
Film maker and writer Stef Penney first came to our notice when her superlative debut novel set in the frozen Canadian north, The Tenderness of Wolves, won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006. Once again Stef builds terrain and nature into the drama of a novel, only this time the terrain is a little further around the world: Greenland and the North Pole.
Within these pages Stef evokes the competitive pioneering that marked the Victorian era as a time of exploration. Like the race to the moon in the 1950s and 1960s, the urge to be the first to discover new lands and routes through the snow becomes all-encompassing for those involved, bringing out the best and also the worst.
To this pungent mix of natural and man-made, adversity Stef brings another factor. As a woman in a very male world, Flora has almost as much to battle before the expedition as she does on it. Life gives her every reason to cast romantic love aside early on so that when a husband does come forth, marriage becomes a mutually beneficial enterprise rather than a partnership based on love and mutual respect. Let's not concentrate solely on Flora though. She may open the book for us as we travel back to her early days, Titanic movie opening style, but Stef has a wide world to show us of which Flora is just a part.
The size of the book hints of epic proportions which is fulfilled in the divergence of three storylines. (Although at times the occasional lulls in momentum make us wonder if it could be a little shorter.) We're treated to the separate biographies of Flora and her American counterpart, Jakob De Beyn. Gradually their lives collide in Greenland and this opens out into the story and aftermath of the British and American expeditions.
Interestingly the lasting impression we come away with isn't the love story mentioned in the book blurb but that of the fights and enmity that co-existed during the struggle to come back with the results that sponsors and the world would want. Indeed, the conflict, social mores and motives are totally absorbing. I especially loved the fascinating insider's view of 19th century Inuit life; a lifestyle that Flora had been dipped in and out of since her childhood as a whaling captain's daughter.
This is a story that allows us to experience two cultures alien to 21st century life against a beautiful but hostile environment. It's therefore also a refreshing change in historical fiction and a good read for anyone trying to escape from staples like Plantagenets and Tudors.
(Thank you to the folks at Quercus for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you haven't read The Tenderness of Wolves, we heartily recommend it to you. If you prefer some more Victorian exploration adventure, try The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson. Meanwhile Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan is the place to go for a non-fictional look at polar exploration.
You can read more book reviews or buy Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney at Amazon.com.
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