After a long run of books by women it felt like something of a novelty to pick up a book by a man. I hadn’t read anything by Jon McGregor since If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which we did many years ago for my book club. I liked it, but not enough to seek out his next, Reservoir 13. But I was intrigued that he had spent time in Antarctica as part of the Writers and Artists programme there and that this latest novel was the result. Plus it has what to me is one of the stand-out covers of the year - enough to get me to add it to the pile the last time I bought books. (In fact this one was as a result of a trip to Waterstones with my children where I usually end up spending money on books for them and have a ‘and something for me’ policy that cheers me up about the whole thing.)
It tells the story of three men who are based at an isolated Antarctic research station. Two are there to update the map data for that section of coastline, the other, Robert 'Doc' Wright, is an older man, veteran of many Antarctic seasons who is there as technical support. The opening is incredibly atmospheric as a sudden storm separates the trio and I thought the way McGregor handled the shifts from one perspective to another was brilliant. I also loved his descriptive language, it felt like I was there.
I was a little surprised then, when there is a shift in focus in the middle third of the book and Anna, Doc’s wife, takes over the story. I actually felt more than a little frustrated at this point, it felt like a completely different novel and I wasn’t sure I liked it. I was half expecting it to shift again for the final third but in fact it doesn’t, we stay with the same characters and perspectives and to my surprise my feelings about the book changed. I suppose I let go of my expectations of where I thought the story was going and just enjoyed where it had ended up. I’m being vague, I know, but for me the magic of this book was the journey that it took me on, and the skill of the author who kept me engaged with characters I didn’t necessarily all that much. It ended up being something very unexpected about love, about tenderness, about the bonds between people and about the different ways we can help heal one another. It made me think of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and when I turned to the back and saw a quote from her I thought ‘yes’ - these are definitely two writers who sit side-by-side. Perhaps there's something about telling a very difficult story and yet finding something beautiful in it that they both have in common.
I think it would be brilliant for book club precisely because I don’t think it is for everybody – and I’ve already had one chat with somebody who did not enjoy it in the way that I did. I thought the pacing was really interesting too, it goes from something fast and compulsive into something slow and reflective where change is measured in tiny increments and I thought it was beautifully done. But others may not agree so a good one for book club for sure. Also just to return to that cover, before I read the book I liked it. After I finished I was in awe, such an incredible visual rendering of the fragmented nature of one man’s experience, it’s genius.
Further reading: For tales of Victorian men with beards who went to the White Continent to see how dead they could get, there is no finer book than Terra Incognita, journalist Sara Wheeler's brilliantly entertaining account of the seven months she spent there. Weaving in histories of explorers like Shackleton and Apsley Cherry-Garrard with her own present-day encounters with welcoming Americans and New Zealanders, and depressingly sexist Brits, this is one of my favourite books of all time, funny, fascinating and wise. A Woman in the Polar Night is Christiane Ritter's memoir of the year she spent with her husband living in an isolated hunter's hut in the far north of Svaalbard. She was there for an arctic winter and her account of surviving this and the sense of rebirth with the return of spring makes for rewarding reading that may lead you, too, to look at the world with new eyes. Otherwise, at the frivolous (but enjoyable) end of the scale read Maria Semple's comedy Where d'You Go Bernadette to find out why Antarctica seems a logical space for her heroine to escape to in order to avoid the PTA. I've considered it myself.