Under a Pole Star is a much bigger book than I have read for some time at over 600 pages, but I loved every page of it. Stef Penney returns to the frozen settings she described so convincingly in The Tenderness of Wolves. I was quite surprised to learn that, like me, she is from Edinburgh. I was sure that she must have been from the cold places she writes about so beautifully. However, although she has been to the Scandanavian Arctic she hasn’t been to the North Pole, the ultimate aim of the characters in this book. Like me, and not surprisingly, she loves snow! I really enjoy books set in very cold climates. It always fascinates me how people can survive in such harsh conditions and it must have been even more difficult for the early Arctic explorers without modern clothing and technology.
This is such an epic book that it is difficult to summarise in just a few sentences but I will try. Dundee born Flora Mackie has had an unusual childhood, travelling with her whaling-ship captain father to the Arctic on several occasions during the second half of the 19th century. She is called The Snow Queen by the press. When she becomes an older teenager, her father refuses to take her anymore feeling it unsuitable for a young lady. She is furious about this and determines, despite being a woman, that she will return to the North to lead her own expeditions. Jakob de Beyn is a geologist from New York travelling with Arctic explorer Lester Armitage. When they meet, an emotional bond is formed which will change their lives forever.
Stef Penney has written an epic novel detailing the lives of Flora and Jakob before they met, their passionate relationship and their shared obsession with the Arctic. Flora is a wonderful character: strong, clever, determined. It must have been hard for intelligent women in the 19th century who had ambition but were held back simply because they were women. Flora is practical and realises that she will only be able to travel back to the North as a married woman, but even then she faces hostility and prejudice. Jakob is the one who sees her as she is and recognises and respects her abilities. The love between the two develops achingly slowly before they finally give in to their emotions. The passion between them leaps off the page with such intensity. Scattered throughout the book, there are sections with Flora as a much older lady returning to the Arctic, having been married three times, discussing her life with a journalist and reminiscing about the great loves of her life – Jakob and the frozen north. Through these, we begin to find out what happened between Jakob, Flora and Lester Armitage.
Despite never having been to the North Pole, the author has clearly researched thoroughly so I felt that I had a good idea of how difficult life was, and probably still is, in the very cold regions of the world. She describes the whaling industry, the expeditions and the preparation required to optimise survival, the health problems faced by the explorers and their obsession to push further and further north, aiming for the ultimate goal – the North Pole. The relationship between the explorers and indigent Inuit people was really interesting to read about. The Inuit, of course, were invaluable to the explorers yet weren’t always treated with the respect they deserved. As you might expect though, Jakob and Flora have a very respectful attitude towards them and value their contributions, something which doesn’t always endear them to their fellow scientists and explorers.
But what Stef Penney does best is write about the vast, bleak yet beautiful Arctic landscape. This is a book to read by a fire, imagining the beauty of snow and ice while immersing yourself in this epic story of adventure and love.
My thanks to the publishers Quercus for allowing me to read a copy via Netgalley. Under a Pole Star was published in hardback and as an e-book on Thursday 3rd November. The paperback will follow next year. You can order a copy online here: Under a Pole Star
From the back of the book
Flora Mackie first crossed the Arctic Circle at the age of twelve. In 1889, the whaler’s daughter from Dundee – dubbed by the press ‘The Snow Queen’ – sets out to become a scientist and explorer. She struggles to be taken seriously but determination and chance lead her back to northern Greenland at the head of a British expedition, despite the many who believe that a young woman has no place in this harsh world of men.
Geologist Jakob de Beyn was raised in Manhattan. Yearning for wider horizons, he joins a rival expedition, led by the furiously driven Lester Armitage. When Jakob and Flora’s paths cross, it is a fateful meeting.
All three become obsessed with the north, a place where violent extremes exist side by side: perpetual night and endless day; frozen seas and coastal meadows; heroism and lies. Armitage’s ruthless desire to be the true leader of polar discovery takes him and his men on a mission whose tragic outcome will reverberate for years to come.
Set against the stark, timeless beauty of northern Greenland, and fin-de-siècle New York and London,Under a Pole Star is a compelling look at the dark side of the ‘golden age’ of exploration, a study of the corrosive power of ambition, and an epic, incendiary love story. It shows that sometimes you have to travel to the furthest edge of the world in order to find your true place in it.