What could have been a fantastic historical novel about the first woman to chart the North Pole becomes a disappointing and frustrating book about an ill-fated but torrid romance.

opening remarks

The Costa Prize nominations have come out and, it would appear, I’ve read three of the four books slated in the Novel category (any award that features Reservoir 13, Home Fire and Tin Man is fine by me, three fantastic works). What I haven’t read is Stef Penney’s Under a Pole Star.  Penney previously won the Costa Prize for her debut, The Tenderness of Wolves (I have not read it). This book, I believe her third, seems to be a historical novel about a female explorer who traversed the uncharted terrain of the North Pole.

knee-jerk observations

I am now ready to propose a theory based on a sample size of three. The brutal dismemberment of animals only occurs in historical fiction! (To be fair in this instance the slicing and dicing makes sense given our main character, Flora, is onboard her father’s whaling ship).

I’m finding the novel engrossing.  It starts as a coming of age tale: Flora’s early years on her father’s whaling ship and Jakob’s childhood in New York imagining a day when he might explore the wonders of the world.  They’re both sympathetic, easy to engage with characters.

The novel does remind me of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr where we have a male and female narrative strand, with the implication that these two characters will eventually meet and, I’m guessing, fall in love.  At the moment Under A Pole Star has fewer Nazis than the Doerr and doesn’t feel as manipulative.  Although… as Flora and Jake grow up and start having relationships with other people you can’t help but think that those connections are doomed, a stepping stone to Flora and Jakob getting together.  As I progress through the book the inevitability that Flora and Jakob’s relationships with other people will fail becomes distracting, undercutting my enjoyment of what’s a rollicking good read.

Flora marries an explorer like herself, Freddie Athlone, and straight away I can’t help but wonder whether Freddie, who is much older than Flora, is gay.  When Freddie locks himself in the toilet on their wedding night I knew I was on a winner (I didn’t buy his excuse that he had some sort of STD that only started showing symptoms days before they were married).  Then, when Freddie asks Flora to suck his dick (though he’s nowhere near as direct) and then takes her to bed to prod her arse with his erect member… well, Sherlock Holmes need not be in the house.  It’s annoying.  Not the anal sex, I have no issue with that, but rather that a woman has to essentially be raped by a man who is forced to hide his sexuality (it’s 1891) just so we can maintain the possibility that Flora and Jake will meet and fall in love.  It’s so fucking artificial and predictable.  A good book is being steadily ruined:

A third of the way through the novel and out two main characters – and possible future lovers – meet for the first time.
Sexy times between Flora and Jakob are afoot.  Thank God.  It feels like it’s taken forever to get to this predictable (inevitable) point in the novel.

False alarm. They don’t have sex because Flora, so anxious about cheating on her husband, the same husband who clearly has sexual predilections that don’t involve women, vomits in the hotel room.  I find this bait and switch fucking frustrating.  Not because I want Flora and Jakob to get it on, frankly they’re less interesting when they’re together, but because the whole will they, won’t they, when will they is distracting.  I’m also tired of the trope, cliche, whatever, where the bloke gets to enjoy shagging and the women gets to be raped or derive no pleasure from the few sexual experiences she encounters.

Double false alarm.  Here comes the sexy train…

Look, I’m not a prude, but the amount of fucking that’s on display in the second half of Under A Pole Star, a tumescent cock, an engorged clitoris and enough jizz to sink a battleship, well it’s getting in the way of all the stuff I was enjoying, the actual exploration of the North Pole.  The reference to an ur-fuck might have been the last straw:

One of the issues Penney deals with is the treatment and abuse of the Eskimo people by European and American explorers. While our heroes are respectful of their ways (except when it comes to digging up their ancient remains… even if it’s with the tacit permission of the tribe) an explorer like Armitage – the villain of the novel – is willing to bring ‘live specimens’, actual Eskimos, back to America so they can be put on show and gawked at.  Sadly most of the Eskimos become sick and die and, as Jakob discovers, the bones of one of the Inuit is put in an exhibit.  I have no idea if this actually happened, if Penney is drawing from an actual account, but it is powerful and horrible nonetheless.  And yet it is undercut by the fact that we only ever get the perspective of Jakob and Flora.  The Eskimos themselves, their views and thoughts, come second hand, through the anger and guilt of our protagonists.

The quote below is from Flora. I just wish Penney had done more with this idea of a woman leading men in the exploration of the North.  Other than referring to her as the Snow Queen multiple times, Flora’s unique position gets lost in her love affair and subsequent angst regarding Jakob:

I had to look up lubricious in the dictionary.  On reflection, I should have figured out what it meant.

The Gist Of It

One way or another all relationships are doomed.  Eventually, somebody is going to kick the bucket, leaving behind a forlorn, bereft partner.  Maybe that’s the reason why authors and readers are drawn to tragic love-affairs, or maybe, if I’m being a tad cynical it’s because this sort of dynamic is naturally oozing with drama.  Whatever the anthropological reason, in the case of Stef Penney’s Under A Pole Star, I found the story of our star-crossed, ill-fated lovers to the weakest part of the book. Unfortunately, it’s also the main focus of the novel which meant I struggled with large chunks of the narrative, especially the middle section where, after so much cock-teasing, Flora and Jakob finally get it on.

When the novel focusses on the actual exploration of the North Pole and not Jakob’s engorged cock, it’s really very good with some lovely passages about the barren whiteness of the polar region.  The trials and tribulations of exploration are also well-expressed and so is, to a lesser extent, the treatment of the Inuit people.

But all of it is burdened by a relationship that takes two reasonably sympathetic characters and turns them initially into lust-machines (which is fair enough) and then angst-ridden as the relationship starts to fracture.  Surprisingly, given Under A Pole Star is about a woman who led a polar expedition, what’s missing, other than the odd mention and head tip toward the end, is the remarkable fact that a woman in the late 19th Century could be so empowered to raise the funds and then explore the most inhospitable parts of the world.  Of the four books nominated by the Costa judges for best novel, this is by far the weakest.