Richard and Judy Review Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
"Penney describes it with astonishing beauty; I don’t remember reading descriptive passages about an extreme environment that are quite as haunting and gripping as hers. "
It’s not long ago that mobile phones were unheard of. Or uttering the words ‘social media’, ‘internet’, or ‘website’ would have simply raised an uncomprehending, furrowed brow. How quickly our world is changing, more rapidly and convulsively than at any time in mankind’s history.
Stef Penney’s extraordinary novel, covering a period still partly within living memory, is a gripping example of how far we have come in little more than a generation. Under A Pole Star takes us back less than 150 years, when we had yet to reach the north pole. No-one really knew what lay there: no wonder Victorian fantasies placed Father Christmas on top of the world. There was no way of proving he wasn’t there.
And how extraordinary it was – and is – to be inside the Arctic Circle. A place of bewildering extremes – endless night in winter; perpetual day in summer. A topsy-turvy, often violent world within-a-world. Penney describes it with astonishing beauty; I don’t remember reading descriptive passages about an extreme environment that are quite as haunting and gripping as hers.
And what a story she sets against the stark, unforgiving backdrop! How she allows the essential warmth and vitality of human life and ambition and passion and sexuality to glow so ruddily on her frozen, unforgiving stage.
This is one of the best novels I have read for a very long time – a masterclass in expressive, descriptive writing with a plotline as sure and certain as the sun disappearing under the horizon on the autumnal equinox and its lazy return six months later.
"…this is one of the longest novels we have ever recommended… But we make no apologies for that. Every single one of them is a delight. "
Flora Mackie spent her pubescence on ice. She grew up in the Arctic, daughter of a Victorian whaler captain, a widower, who has no choice but to take his feisty, spirited child on months-long expeditions to hunt his giant quarry among the ice floes and permafrost of the most hostile environment on the planet.
Flora is still only 12 when she crosses the Arctic Circle for the first time. She is fascinated by the relationships between the men on board her father’s stout and sturdy ship; intrigued by the respect and deference they show her as the captain’s daughter; enthralled by the almost pitifully few other humans who live or work in the mostly uninhabited wasteland – Inuits, rival whalers (although there is a rough brotherhood among the crews of competing ships) and explorers yet to penetrate all the way to the North Pole itself.
We first meet Flora towards the end of her life; an old woman in 1948, flying back to the Arctic in a converted WW2 bomber for a publicity tour. Then we are treated to a series of flashbacks – her extraordinary childhood; how it inspired her to become the first woman polar explorer; her love affair with a scientist on a rival expedition to reach the top of the world.
At almost 600 pages this is one of the longest novels we have ever recommended for the Richard and Judy Book Club. But we make no apologies for that. Every single one of them is a delight.
Firstly, thank you for writing this book. It’s a masterpiece. Tell us how you landed on such an epic plotline. Why the Arctic?
Having researched Arctic exploration for years (even before writing The Tenderness of Wolves) I always knew I would come back to the subject. There’s something magnetic about the far north – that seductive pull of elemental beauty and danger. Putting characters in such a place exerts huge pressure on them, and when people are under pressure, interesting things happen.
In particular, I was compelled by the controversy over who first reached the North Pole. I didn’t want to write about Cook and Peary (I couldn’t improve on the facts, and much has been written about them), but I was fascinated by the sort of people who are drawn to exploration, and the reasons why they might be driven to lie about their achievements.
You must have had to carry out an extraordinary amount of research before sitting down to write this – presumably, including visits to the Arctic?
Yes, there was a lot of research – the diverse elements of the story meant there were many different areas to cover. Reading, of course, trawling the internet, watching footage, following web logs (there is a webcam at the North Pole)… But I haven’t been to Greenland – armchair exploring is much more my thing. I’ve been to the Scandinavian Arctic a few times – beautiful but totally different – but I’m unconvinced that being there has made my landscape writing any stronger. Being there normalises a place; you are struck by differences, but even more by similarities: wherever there are people, there be dentists. Much of my response to landscape stems from childhood memories of the Highlands – there’s plenty of cold, snow, bleakness and beauty there, and at that age, it seeps into your bones.
Why do you think some people are so powerfully drawn to enter the Arctic circle, to a land of perpetual darkness in winter and endless daylight in summer?
I’m sure for the same reasons that fascinate me; the beauty of snow and ice; the changes in light and rhythm, and the chance to experience a wilderness that is (relatively) untouched by humans. Perhaps that is even more compelling now we know how fragile and under threat it is. Possibly, for some, it holds out the same promise of purity, harshness and emptiness that it did for the Golden Age explorers: a test of character.
Flora is such an extraordinarily layered character. As her creator, you must now feel she is almost a three-dimensional reality!
It was a wonderful and difficult experience writing her, because she goes on such a huge journey, emotionally as well as geographically. It was also the greatest challenge. There are no comparable historical figures – women didn’t reach the Arctic as autonomous agents until the late 1920s (the first was a Scot, Isobel Wylie Hutchison) so I had to work extra hard to make her into a believable explorer. My great-grandmother was from a Dundee shipbuilding family, and when I decided Flora would be a whaler’s daughter, her unlikely career began to be just about possible. She still has to be intensely focused, stubborn and bloody minded, but that wasn’t such a stretch! I write so slowly, partly because of the amount of research I like to do, but also because the characters grow organically once I start working on them. They really do take on a life of their own, doing things I didn’t plan and pulling the story in new directions. Writing is another kind of exploration, because I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but that’s what makes it exciting – if, at times, impossible. And I love them – not just Flora, but all my favourite characters live on beyond the books. One of them might even be making a reappearance soon…
- Flora is a strong woman – discuss how her upbringing has formed her character.
- The descriptions of place are very evocative in this novel. How important are the settings for this novel in forming the story?
- Discuss Flora and Jakob’s relationship.
- What does this novel tell us about a woman’s place in the world in this period?