Midge 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’sEverland 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.
Four novels read but not reviewed this month, all very different but all fine books in their own way, beginning with Rebecca Hunt’s Everland. It’s taken me a while to get around to this novel which follows two expeditions a century apart, charting their progress on a tiny Antarctic island. The second is in commemoration of the first, which we know from the start ended disastrously, and to some extent the parties mirror each other: one member inexperienced, apparently weak, there because of nepotism; one young and a little arrogant; both led by a seasoned leader whose heart is firmly tethered to home. The shifts and realignments in relationships between the characters are sharply observed and Hunt captures the natural world beautifully with poetically descriptive language. I enjoyed it very much but Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal with its vividly evocative writing and perceptive characterisation remains my benchmark for this kind of novel. A click on the title will take you to Naomi’s excellent review at Consumed by Ink.
I came to Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Future after reading the lovely Molly Fox’s Birthday which follows a woman’s thoughts over the birthday of the friend who has lent her the house she is staying in. This one was not quite the match for Molly but Madden excels at that subtle understatement and exploration of family in the way that so many Irish writers do, examining how our past elides with our present as Fintan Buckley’s newly awakened interest in photography changes his perceptions of those around him. Nothing much happens but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written.
I very nearly gave up Thomas Christopher Greene’s The Headmaster’s Wife but there’s a magnificent twist about half-way through which made me sit up straight and carry on. Arthur Winthrop is found wandering naked in snowy Central Park. Dull and somewhat stodgy, he’s the headmaster of a Vermont school, following in the footsteps of his father. Arthur tells the first part of his story to the police, a tale of scandal and betrayal. Halfway through the book a lawyer appears and suddenly, like a twist of a kaleidoscope, an entirely different picture appears. The second part of the book is written from his wife’s point of view, neatly putting into perspective everything Arthur has told his captors.
My last book of 2015 was NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the second Zimbabwean novel I read this year. Bulawayo’s debut begins in 2005, the year Robert Mugabe bulldozed tens of thousands of houses, leaving families without shelter at a time when the economy was in tatters. Told through the strikingly vivid voice of ten-year-old Darling who roams the shanty town where she now lives with her friends, no longer at school now that teachers are not paid, it’s very different from Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memorybut equally as good. How nice to end the reading year with such an excellent book!