Tag Archives: Antarctica

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond: Two love stories in one

Cover imageMidge Raymond’s My Last Continent caught my eye when I was busy perusing the July publishing schedules for a preview post. It’s set mainly in Antarctica, a backdrop shared by two other novels that I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed: Favel Parret’s tale of the 1987 Nella Dan disaster, When the Night Comes, and Rebecca Hunt’s Everland which recounts two expeditions separated by a century. I was hoping for more glorious descriptions of the Antarctic landscape and Raymond delivers them beautifully in her moving story of Deb and Keller, drawn to each other by their mutual love for this desolate yet majestic continent.

Close to forty and unmarried, Deb is a researcher for a project examining the effects of climate change and tourism on penguins. She’s something of a loner, more at home on the ice observing her beloved birds than at the parties her Oregon landlord throws. Ironically, her annual research trips are funded by her work as a tour guide aboard the Cormorant, educating tourists about the impact of their behaviour on the environment. She’s all too well aware that her own research increases the penguins’ anxiety as much as the presence of tourists during their heavily supervised excursions. It’s on one of these trips that she meets Keller who has turned his back on his career as a lawyer. These two see each other only during their summer research stints – Deb hoping for something more, Keller still untethered after the loss of his daughter. One summer Keller fails to appear on the Cormorant, dropped after overstepping the mark in expressing his views to a passenger. When the book opens we know there will be a shipwreck and that the death toll will be heavy but we don’t know who will die.

There are two narrative strands running through Raymond’s novel: one unfolding Deb’s story, taking us back and forth over twenty years; the other, her account of the weeks leading up to the shipwreck. Raymond’s writing has a quiet, contemplative tone which contrasts sharply with the dramatic suspense of the shipwreck scenes. The love story between Deb and Keller is deftly handled, properly grown up in its acknowledgement of the tensions between them, but this is not simply a novel about two lovers – it’s a passionate tribute to the no longer pristine Antarctic icescape and the fauna that inhabits it. Raymond is never sentimental in her descriptions but it’s impossible not to be moved by her recurring image of the ‘flipper dance’ with which Emperor penguin mates greet each other after a long separation ending with an ecstatic cry, echoing Deb and Keller’s encounters. Her novel is full of arresting images – icebergs the size of skyscrapers, a zebra-striped monochrome island – conjuring up a world of stark beguiling beauty where the slightest slip can result in death. Raymond weaves her research lightly through her writing; there’s no bludgeoning the reader with polemic but the awareness of the environment’s fragility is always there. Enlightening, absorbing and moving, it’s a damn good read which succeeded in transporting me into a very different world from the one outside my door on what was then the hottest day of the year.

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett: The story of a sailor, a girl and the Nella Dan

When the Night ComesI was drawn to Favel Parrett’s novel by the slimmest of synopses when checking out titles for my Books to Look Out for in November post. Antarctica was the lure. I’ve read several non-fiction books about it and had particularly enjoyed Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. In the event it’s not really about that but this story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for the Casey research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down turns out to be quite captivating. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.

Isla’s mother has fled a violent marriage, taking Isla and her brother to Hobart where they live hand-to-mouth until her divorce settlement comes through. They take in a lodger to help pay for the small cottage her mother buys. Bo is the cook aboard the Nella Dan, the Danish ship which takes expeditioners down to Casey Island and supplies the research station there. He’s the son of a sailor who died young at sea, a man who also crewed the Nella Dan, sailing on her maiden voyage. Bo comes and goes with the ship gradually bringing Isla out of herself with his tales of life at sea, his descriptions of elephant seals and the beauty of the Antarctic, firing an interest in science and the natural world which will follow her into adult life. Bo and Isla’s mother grow close. Over ‘two long summers’, tragedy and disappointment intertwine with quiet joy and camaraderie aboard the Nella Dan, just as in Hobart a terrible loss is tempered by gradual adjustment and acceptance.

In short impressionistic chapters, occasionally punctuated with brief bursts of poetry, Parrett tenderly unfolds the story of Bo, Isla and the Nella Dan, sometimes through Bo, sometimes, through Isla. Moments of drama stand out vividly from her quietly poetic yet unfussy prose. It’s studded with wonderful descriptions – Leo baking in the galley, his pastries ‘like sunshine’; the snow petrels of Casey Island ‘flashes of white against the sky’; Isla’s first sighting of the ‘bright red wall of steel’ of the Nella Dan and the wave she exchanges with the sailor on board. The growing bond between Bo and Isla – both of whom lost their fathers young in very different ways – and the deep, often unspoken, consideration and friendship between the sailors, are beautifully conveyed. Not least, there’s the love of the sailors for their ship – hard for those of us who’ve spent our working lives confined within four walls to comprehend perhaps, but borne out by the testimony of the men who really did sail on her: ‘the Ship of my Life’, ‘the perfect ship’, as Hans Sønderburg puts it. A beautifully expressed book, then, far more moving than I expected, and one I hope won’t be overlooked.