A love story, a fabulous female character and a fresh view of Artic explorations

Under A Pole Star - Stef Penney

Thanks to NetGalley and to Quercus Books for sending me an ARC copy of the book that I voluntarily choose to review. Artic and Polar exploration is one of those subjects that sound fascinating but I didn’t know much about. This novel, although not claiming to be based on real historical figures (when I read a bit around it, I found several explorers whose lives seemed to have more than a few details in common with some of the characters, and there’s no doubt that the author has researched well the subject) manages to bring to life the polar explorations of the late XIX and early XX century, but not as the heroic endeavours we’re used to. The characters are driven, determined and daring, but that is not the whole story. Of course, when one gets to think about it, it is clear that somebody had to pay for the expeditions, and there were conditions, sponsorship, etc. Some of the things done (exaggerations, false claims, exploitation of the natives) are non-dissimilar to those seen in many other endeavours of the time when there was much curiosity for other people’s and places, and some bizarre and questionable things were done in the name of science and education. The story is framed by a trip to the North Pole, this time flying, of a collection of various characters. One of them, a journalist, has personal reasons to be there and is intrigued by one of the other characters, Flora Mackie, named the Snow Queen due to her many expeditions to Greenland and the Artic. The novel is divided into a number of parts, mostly told (in the third person) from the point of view of two characters, Jakob and Flora, both who experienced losses as children and who are fascinated by the North, ice, and the cold. Flora is an extraordinary character, a Scottish girl who loses her mother, and whose father, a captain of a whaler, decides to take her with him when she is a young girl. She loves it and is determined to go back when she grows up (as once she becomes a woman her father decides it is not appropriate for her to carry on joining his whaling expeditions). She is a driven character trying to follow her heart at a time when the number of roles socially acceptable and available for women was very limited. She feels more at home in Greenland with the Eskimos (as they were called at the time) than she does in Dundee or London. Jakob, a Geologist, loves studying the ice, glaciers and is fascinated by the North and nature. Jakob and Flora seemed destined for each other, but both personal and professional difficulties interfere (the path of true love and all that…). Later, as the story is revealed slowly and from different points of view, we come to wonder if some dark events were also involved. The descriptions of the era and particularly of the Artic and its way of life at the time are beautiful and vividly rendered. Flora is a truly complex and fascinating character, who faces difficulties familiar to many women and other unique to her singular circumstances. She feels guilty for not keeping up with moral standards, whilst trying hard to be her own person and free, no matter her gender. She might appear cold at first sight, but she has to try and be a leader to the men working with her, and not showing any weakness. A difficult task even now. Jakob is a likeable man, who doubts himself and his origins, decent and moral, less ambitious than most of the other characters, and his strongest passions are Flora and his love of ice and glaciers. There are descriptions of sex, that on reading the reviews I’ve noticed some reviewers didn’t find relevant to the book. These scenes are well-written and go some way to humanise and demonstrate how special this relationship was for both characters, especially compared to Flora’s experiences (we know less about Jakob’s), but readers need to be advised that although they are not a major part of the book (it is a long book) they are significant and explicit, especially in certain episodes of the novel. This is a novel beautifully written, full of descriptions of places few of us might get to visit and a time far away in history but close enough to seem familiar. The pace is leisurely, and although there are plenty of adventures, emotions and we share in the gamut of human emotions (love, envy, hatred, jealousy, greed…), it is not the typical page-turner. A novel recommended for those who love historical fiction (especially one that offers a revisionist view of events), stylishly written, with great characters and who don’t mind a few explicit sexual scenes.