What’s it all about?:
Flora Mackie was twelve when she first crossed the Arctic Circle on her father’s whaling ship. Now she is returning to the frozen seas as the head of her own exploration expedition. Jakob de Beyn was raised in Manhattan, but his yearning for new horizons leads him to the Arctic as part of a rival expedition. When he and Flora meet, all thoughts of science and exploration give way before a sudden, all-consuming love.
The affair survives the growing tensions between the two groups, but then, after one more glorious summer on the Greenland coast, Jakob joins his leader on an extended trip into the interior, with devastating results.
The stark beauty of the Arctic ocean, where pack ice can crush a ship like an eggshell, and the empty sweep of the tundra, alternately a snow-muffled wasteland and an unexpectedly gentle meadow, are vividly evoked. Against this backdrop Penney weaves an irresistible love story, a compelling look at the dark side of the golden age of exploration, and a mystery that Flora, returning one last time to the North Pole as an old woman, will finally lay to rest.
What did I think?:
Under A Pole Star is the penultimate pick for the Richard and Judy Book Club here in the UK and is something I like to follow whenever they bring out a new list. If you’re interested in the rest of the books they have picked for the Autumn Book Club, check out the main page on my blog where there is a tab that includes all the reads for this season and some of the past choices, most of which I review in a “Talking About” feature with my sister and fellow blogger, Chrissi Reads. This is the first novel I’ve read by Stef Penney although I am familiar with her debut, The Tenderness Of Wolves which I know was very popular when it came out in 2006 and won a prize for best debut at The Costa Book Awards. If you missed the announcement last night, Under A Pole Star has made the short-list for the best novel category in the Costa Book Awards this year so I wish the author the very best of luck.
As soon as I read the synopsis for this novel, I have to say I was very excited. The idea of two rival Arctic expeditions in the late 1940’s and a blossoming love affair between the two camps was quite intriguing but I’m also not a big fan of romance – it has to be done as delicately as possible for me otherwise I just feel slightly nauseous so I did approach this book with slight trepidation as well. Romance aside for the moment, generally this is a fantastic novel. We have two main characters – the British Flora Mackie and the American Jakob de Beyn who has Dutch roots but is raised in America with his brother after a tragedy befalls his parents. Flora herself has been practically raised on the ice having lost her mother also at a young age and her father, a whaling captain takes her along on his expeditions.
The novel opens with Flora as an old woman, returning to the Arctic for one more expedition and there is a young male journalist eager to meet with the woman known as The Snow Queen to revel in the juicy tidbits of her life. Then the story goes back in time to when Flora was a teenager and first developed her love of exploring and then finally to *that* expedition of 1948 where she meets Jakob for the first time and they fall in love. We also hear parts of Jakob’s adolescence, his struggles with his family, his love for his brother and his friend Frank who ends up accompanying him on the expedition, and his triumphs when he becomes a geologist and gets to realise his dream – an Arctic expedition with explorer, Lester Armitage and a whole crew of people determined to discover new lands.
There is so much going on in this novel, it’s almost epic in proportions and I don’t want to go into too much detail about plot for fear of giving anything away (and also I don’t want to tell you the full story of course, what fun would that be?). Let’s just say there’s tragedy in both of our protagonists lives, heart-break, difficult situations that they come across where they succeed or fail but the main crux of the tale is that by falling in love with each other, it makes both their lives better despite what has happened in their pasts and what happens to them afterwards. I can almost see it as a feature length film, it felt like a screenplay would be a piece of cake for any talented writer and there is a lot to play with regarding characters and setting. I can’t pretend that there weren’t issues for me with the romance though unfortunately.
Flora comes across as quite a cold character at first, which is absolutely fine, she has had a lot to deal with in her life and has had to fend off multiple misogynist points of view regarding what she “should” be doing as a female in the 1940’s i.e. staying at home, cleaning the house, cooking dinner, bearing children and I really appreciated how the author made her so strong, fiesty and independent. Jakob was a little more of an enigma for me and I never felt like I got to know the real him which was a bit of a shame. However, my main problem was that I really didn’t believe in their relationship. They fell in love entirely too easily for my liking (ah, the dreaded insta-love!) and I’m so sorry but the sex scenes? Multiple cringe-worthy moments that really didn’t do it for me and were far too frequent. I’m no prude but I would much rather have heard more about the Arctic way of life with maybe a little sliver of romance and it felt very “sex-heavy,” if that’s a term. That’s just a personal preference though, truly some people might love it! She just lost me a little bit when she had Flora sniffing his penis.
Aside from this niggle, this is a fascinating book with some wonderful characters to get to grips with, poignant and devastating moments that I simply cannot share with you but I think you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve read this book already? Stef Penney has taken the people and the world of the Arctic and written a compelling piece of historical fiction that still keeps playing on my mind weeks after finishing it. I would definitely be interested in reading anything else she writes in the future.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):