GMR’s “Slow Burn” review series looks back at titles that continue to smolder, still, beneath the embers of last year or even the year before. And here in the frozen trough of winter, we’ve never needed those embers more. In that spirit, Rachel Bara bundles up with two novels perfect for pulling across these long polar months.–The Editors
Whether drawn to the cold, white expanse or to the log books and diaries of explorers, writers keep finding ways to explore the polar regions. In two very different novels, Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Amy Sackville warm their icy expedition narratives with feminist perspectives. Bledsoe’s The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica (The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic) compensates women for the century when only men trekked to the Pole, marked their journals, and peered across the ice. By contrast, her fifth novel introduces readers to three women living in present day Antarctica. Characters in Sackville’s The Still Point inhabit both London drawing rooms and silk tents pitched near the North Pole. This debut novel carefully binds historical and contemporary perspectives to reveal Arctic life as harrowingly quotidian.
The Big Bang Symphony provides an adrenaline-spiked reading experience. Even before the three main characters arrive at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a plane meets turbulence and crash-lands on the ice. In this, and the short chapters that follow, Bledsoe uses moments of danger and high emotion to jump from one point-of-view to another. Moving from outspoken Rosie to Mikala (a composer still grieving the death of her partner), and then to Alice (a geologist experiencing Antarctic fieldwork for the first time), Bledsoe unmoors readers with characters who experience their own psychic dislocations.
Stepping too far away from the base, either in a moment of willful self-abandonment or to get away from a pesky suitor, these women risk their lives. Mikala comes to Antarctica on an artist’s fellowship to write a symphony inspired by the Big Bang. Unable to compose music since her partner’s death, Mikala “hoped the South Pole would shock some music out of her.” Yet, she periodically puts herself in harm by walking too far from shelter. After a visit to Hotel South Pole, a small cabin situated far from the base for privacy, Mikala “sat down on the ice, cross-legged, and let the cold seize her. As if it could take the place of grief.” Rosie, a humble galley cook, sings to “the bluing glaciers and the biting peaks” and swears to “reestablish her exile,” vowing to stay away from men. She, too, finds herself wandering on the ice, feeling “stabbed” by chill winds. In moments like these, Bledsoe situates her novel on a continuum of arctic explorers, depicting a dangerous playground for self-actualization.
The most powerful passages of the novel show Bledsoe’s characters’ sensual and intellectual engagement with the world. When Rosie leaves one of the many social parties that happen in the novel, “the cold air slapped her face hard. Both the sea ice and the sky ached with blue now.” She turns to her companion and states, “The sun will never set while we’re here.” Rosie, with two previous seasons in Antarctica, wards off the man beside her by establishing her superiority based on experience. She also discloses the effects of the extreme environment: loneliness, boredom, insanity. For Mikala, the events of her life, together with the landscape, present themselves through music. In the midst of the plane crash, she felt “as if all the musicians in the world had thrown their instruments—horns, pianos, cellos, timpani—off a tall building at once.” Within the confines of her friendship with Rosie, Mikala finds herself remembering the hymn that Rosie sang after the crash, when they pressed against each other for warmth. While Mikala returns again and again in her thoughts to Rosie, her symphony begins to take shape in her head. Thus, Bledsoe makes the reader privy to Mikala’s artistic process.
Bledsoe’s vision of Antarctica discloses a McMurdo Station more like a town than an Antarctic outpost, complete with a dizzying array of scientists, artists, and cooks. Early in the novel, Rosie contrasts the nature of a landscape “so raw and pure, all seal hide and crystalline iceberg” with the “fishbowl community of McMurdo,” which “intensified relationships, jacked all emotion up to a ten.” Accordingly, each of the women gets drawn into a tricky relationship. Rosie lusts after her boss’s husband. Mikala dwells on the way Rosie slept with her arms wrapped around her. Unfortunately, all the hook-ups make McMurdo feel a little like high school, where hormones rise with each pass in the hallway; however, adult ambitions also drive these women.
Amy Sackville in The Still Point also uses multiple perspectives and adds shifting time periods to tell a complicated story, while situating her central protagonist in an elegant old house just outside of London. In present day, Julia, the great-grand niece of Arctic explorer Edward Mackley, sorts through the belongings of her ancestors in the family home. She discovers documents that impart the separate histories of Mackley and his widow, Emily, who waited for his return until her death. In sumptuous prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway, Sackville, for the entirety of the novel, follows Julia and her husband throughout one hot August day.
The novel opens sometime before dawn in Julia and Simon’s bedroom, as their naked bodies slide away from each other just after lovemaking. They both shift, settle in their sleep, and dream separately of the Arctic. Julia dreams of childhood play inspired by her great-granduncle’s polar disappearance:
When I was a girl, we cut holes in the world. My sister took a pair of scissors and cut two lines in the air parallel, horizontal, and then cut down between them to make invisible curtains which she took carefully between finger and thumb, and drawing them back, invited me to put my hand through the gap.
Julia and Simon’s dreams punctuate the first part of the novel, slowing time, revealing individual memories, and introducing readers to subtle images and metaphors.
The narrative voices move among fugitive musings, dreams, and concrete, descriptive details with equal precision. For example, when Julia wakes suddenly, she pushes off the sticky blanket and steps onto a bear rug, finding her “toes deep in thick white fur . . . . Stepping with automatic care over the rug’s massive head.” To wit, Sackville makes quiet and stillness the richest of spaces; time and thought become sensual, tangible offerings, a full-body lens for the reader.
The omniscient narrator delights in mischievously cueing readers for shifts in perspective throughout the novel. “Wait,” she tells us. “Look,” she states, “here is Edward in his cabin . . . .” Later in the novel, context clues and voice exhibit changes in perspective, alternating between Julia’s and Simon’s day and their waking dreams. Julia, an archivist, opens boxes, labels a telescope and a broken watch found with Mackley’s body, and doodles on a notepad. Julia’s drowsiness intensifies her vision of Mackley’s experience; drawing from artifacts and logbooks, she inhabits his mind and body during his journey to the Pole. After a month spent aboard the Persephone, Mackley senses that the ice will soon freeze around them. The narrator states:
He could feel it. He knew where he was from the moment he woke; for the first time since they left the coast behind them, he did not expect to find [Emily] beside him. The sea shifting under him had become his own lymph-rhythm. And he knew, too, that the sea was beginning to freeze . . . without so much as standing up from his bed, he knew it. He could smell it, although it was scentless. Across the bridge of his nose, under his eyes, like a frozen sneeze he felt the pinch of it. Ice.
Just as Edward senses ice, all of the characters in the novel wait for the arrival of something solid, cold, and potentially disappointing. Sackville blends lives expertly. The reader will enjoy anticipating changes in perspective and making connections between experiences recorded in log books and events as they occur. Sackville uses daydreaming and dreaming to investigate desire and discontent, pushing subconscious wishes to the surface for each of her characters, forcing them to act.
As the plot develops, readers learn that The Still Point involves a mystery. While Julia ponders the relationship between Emily and Mackley, and the comfortable bonds of her own marriage, she also probes Mackley’s journals and Emily’s letters. Emily and Mackley’s writings provide Julia with much to imagine. She envisions Mackley shooting a bear “square in the eye,” killing it without leaving a scar. She sees a dying Mackley, “half blind with hunger,” shooting a fox. With a tattered newspaper clipping, Julia recreates the moment when Emily first lost hope for her husband’s return. Although Julia scrutinizes these Victorian documents, they do not betray any family secrets. Only family stories—passed down from mother to child, father to son—will tell Julia a different truth.
Both The Big Bang Symphony and The Still Point will satiate readers looking for tales of arctic sunlight. These stories about people trudging across ice in search of the impossible will make readers question our own complacencies, work lives, and suburban locales. Whether slipping into Sackville’s attic dream world or into the hyperactive music festival of Bledsoe’s McMurdo Station, readers will find satisfaction and release, will close their books, and daydream about exploration.