Sunday, 25 November 2012

Farthest North and Farthest South #1: Spectres from the sea

 Having recently visited the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge (no idea why I haven't done this before, having lived in the city for eight years) I was reminded that one of my on-off obsessions is with the North and South Poles and their environs. I'm not quite sure why, and having given the matter a little consideration, I think it's something to do with storytelling. As an historian, I'm trained to unravel and unpick stories, to scrutinise the aspects that give them the most weight, and while it would be hard to argue that, for example, the history of Antarctic exploration has been entirely unbiased - Max Jones's The Last Great Quest is devoted solely to the history of the rewriting of Scott's reputation after his death in 1911 - there is something about it that lends itself to narrative. For me, the fact that the poles are uninhabited means that I can engage with the quests of explorers like Scott in an easier way than I can relate to other nineteenth and early-twentieth century explorers, who tended to leave a trail of destruction through local peoples in their wake. Of course, this does not mean there are no moral questions to ask about polar exploration - the environmental impact is the first consideration that springs to mind - but there's something wonderfully refreshing about being able to engage with a good story like the exploits of Scott and Shackleton again, without having to worry about the other sides. 

And this long-winded introduction is to say that I'm following up my entirely non-random and well-planned Tigers series with another series of reviews on the far north and far south. I've decided to begin with a book I recently re-read after reading it for the first time in the Scottish Highlands a few years ago - which worked remarkably well given the long, bright evenings, the lack of electricity in the house I was staying in, and its isolated location. Somewhat chilling... (I've since read Sarah Moss's second novel, Night Waking, which is another frustrating mix of flaws and brilliance - I reviewed it briefly here).

Cold Earth, her debut novel, starts extremely well but trails off somewhat about halfway through, although an element of tension is maintained until the (rather rushed) ending. The central - and immediately intriguing - idea is that a group of British and American archaeologists, Nina, Ruth, Jim, Catriona, Yianni and Ben, are excavating a Viking settlement on the isolated coast of West Greenland. The site in question was abandoned by the early settlers for debatable reasons; was it plague, raiders, or climate change that drove them away? However, these ancient events are inadvertently echoed by the archeologists themselves when an epidemic back home leaves them entirely cut off, running out of food as winter and darkness draw in.

As I noted above, the beginning of the novel is masterly. Nina, who narrates first, is a brilliantly drawn, if not exactly likeable, character, and her paranoid slant on the dig provides a wonderfully atmospheric opening scarier than the vast majority of ghost stories I've read, as she dreams of the early settlers surrounding their camp in the weirdly light Greenlandic nights. Unfortunately, the rest of the book suffers from major problems with pacing. When the narration abruptly switches to Ruth, who is the most pragmatic of the group and openly disgusted with Nina's hysterics, much of the narrative drive is lost. Although Ruth is an equally well-drawn character, and the personality clash between her and Nina works well as the internal politics of the group begin to take shape, her refusal to believe in Greenlandic ghosts robs Nina's section of much of its impact. This is also due to the form of the novel as a whole. It's presented as a collection of 'last letters home' written by the archaeologists, but unfortunately this conceit becomes increasingly contrived, as a number of the 'letters' were clearly written before the danger became apparent, and it seems to me that it would have been better to have kept it as a straightforward set of switching narratives, which would have allowed more flexibility to interperse sections of Nina's narration with Ruth's, for example.

The second half of the novel is also oddly paced. The major plot point - the isolation of the group from civilisation - doesn't kick in until very late in the day, although the scene narrated by Jim where they wait for a plane that never comes is, again, wonderfully and creepily written. Although the lengthening nights and Arctic landscape - along with Ruth's mediations on death - are continually used to good effect, the novel never really regains its momentum, and wraps up incredibly quickly at the end with short sections from Catriona, Ben and Yianni, which feel frustratingly unbalanced compared to the much longer narratives from the first three characters. I was left with the impression that the book could have been significantly longer, and that the male characters, in particular, were left rather underdeveloped.

However, this is perhaps an overly critical take so far - what the novel does do, it does very well, and I'm perhaps being more critical than is fair because it could so easily have been really brilliant, rather than just good. Nina, Ruth, and even Catriona, who gets far less page time, are all vividly depicted, and the dialogue is often amusingly biting as the squabbling between the characters increases. At one point Nina - who fancies herself well-travelled - and Ben have this telling exchange over passports;

'Nina looked up. 

"Gosh, that looks very new and shiny. Mine's in rags."

"Yeah... The other one went through the wash."


The atmosphere is genuinely chilling, and difficult to shake off after finishing the book, and the details of early Viking settlements in Greenland are fascinating - Moss manages to filter through a lot of information without ever including anything that seems extraneous. And, despite the uneven pace, it's still hard to put down, and I found myself being continously drawn back to the story. All in all, then, an impressive debut - although Night Waking solved some of its problems while creating others. I'm looking forward to checking out Moss's new non-fiction book, Names for the Sea, which deals with her time living in Reykjavik, and possibly her earlier academic work, The Frozen Ship, on the development of discourses on the Arctic and Antarctic. In the meantime, this series will continue next Sunday when I review two non-fiction books on Antarctica.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Making pastry

There are shades of Nicci French, Daphne du Maurier and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal in this debut novel, and it also ventures into that netherworld between popular and literary fiction that a lot of novels get lost in. However you categorise it, however, it’s a supremely enjoyable read.

Frances, a nondescript woman in her thirties who works in publishing, is driving home from a visit to her parents when she discovers a car that has skidded off the road, with an injured woman inside. As she exchanges a few words with the occupant, Alys, after calling an ambulance, she doesn’t realise that she will be the last person to see her alive. After being called by the police to make a statement, Frances becomes instantly fascinated with Alys’s family after realising that she was the wife of famous novelist Laurence Kyte (whose novels sound somewhat reminiscient of Ian McEwan’s more recent work). Although Frances is determinedly practical and realistic, she is clearly able to be seduced by fame and glamour, and so she begins inviegling her way into the hearts of the Kytes, starting with the weakest link, their teenage daughter, Polly. But what is Frances’ ultimate goal and how conscious is she of what she is doing?

Frances, who narrates the novel, is a brilliantly characterised anti-heroine. Like Harriet, the unreliable narrator of Jane Harris’s excellent Gillespie and I, she constantly challenges us to read between the lines of her narration, and to speculate on how much pre-mediation lies behind each carefully judged action. Unlike Tom Ripley, however, her motivations are hard to read precisely because her present life is not so awful. Her flat may be shabby and her job undistinguished, but she has friends, and her success at work seems likely to have increased regardless of her involvement with the Kytes, although she seems to believe otherwise. How manipulative is Frances? The best clue lies in her own statement late in the novel, when she reveals that she does plan her actions but not too much: ‘I have a few things to work out but I try not to over-think them. If I over-think, events will feel rehearsed... It’s a bit like making pastry. Light cool hands, no hurry, lots of air. Wait for the moment when the texture changes.’ It’s a perfect description of someone who desires power and control, but has realised that the best way to attain it is to be open to suggestion and improvisation.

Hence, the novel is actually a neat inversion of Rebecca; Alys may be the woman with her name on the cover, but she is increasingly forgotten as Frances's campaign continues, retreating into the past to be remembered only as Laurence's first wife. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that Frances’ narration, although well-observed and cleanly written, occasionally makes the world look rather grey, as when she observes that all her friends’ houses look essentially the same. This is obviously a product of her own world-view, and hence, hardly a flaw in the writing, but it doesn’t make for uplifting reading, and was the only reason I did not look forward to coming back to this book. Otherwise, this slim, disturbing novel is pretty accomplished, and I would recommend it.