Book review: Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney
In a way, I am the ideal and worst reader for this novel. I have a decidedly soft spot for “neo-Victorian novels” such as John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman, AS Byatt’s Possession or Elaine di Rollo’s The Peachgrowers’ Almanack, especially those that concern themselves with the hidden lives of women. I am very interested in works set in the extreme north, whether fiction, like John Buchan’s Sick Heart River, Magnus Mills’ Explorers Of The New Century and Lynn Coady’s Saints Of Big Harbour, or non-fiction, like Kathleen Winter’s Boundless, Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North and Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum. Immediately after the prologue, we learn that one of the principal characters, Flora Cochrane, née Mackie, aka The Snow Queen, is the daughter of a Dundonian captain, and grew up on his whaling vessel after the death of her mother – and one of my five favourite books of all time is Moby-Dick. Heck, the novel even prefaces each chapter with precise longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates, and much of the imagery centres around the constellations: the oscillation of the pole star between Polaris and Thuban is a key image, and sections have headings like “Vega in Lyra” or “Arcturus in Boötes”; and I was on the panel that awarded the Man Booker to Eleanor Catton’s astrologically provocative The Luminaries. So all the pieces were in place for me to love this book, and indeed, there are some very fine descriptive passages and a number of interesting ideas; not just about the Arctic, but about love, dominion, ambition and fulfilment. Moreover, the author has a proven track record, having won the Costa Prize ten years ago. In one sentence which a dutiful editor ought to have excised as a hostage to fortune, one character says of another’s non-fiction book, “it is a remarkably anodyne piece of fiction”. Well, quite.
But my curiosity was piqued. Why, when the book on the surface ticks so many boxes for me, did I fail to enjoy it?