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?
Stef Penney PIC: Ian Phillips-McLarenStef Penney PIC: Ian Phillips-McLaren
Stef Penney PIC: Ian Phillips-McLaren

The plot opens with Flora, now in her eighties, being taken by plane to stand at the North Pole (a place which has been reduced from Romantic unknown to cartographic curiosity as far as she is concerned). She is being button-holed by a young journalist keen to know about her time as an explorer. After her whaling adolescence, Flora went to university, became a meteorologist, had a pash that didn’t work out, and went on an expedition to Greenland with her unloved husband. In parallel, Jakob de Beyn, an orphan, studies geology in New York, has a fling with a married woman, and signs up with his best friend on a rival American expedition to the same place. Flora is keen to amass data and has good relations with her childhood Inuit friends; her American rival Armitage is more supercilious to the locals and wants only glory. The young journalist is especially interested in the mystery of the “Armitage-de Beyn controversy”. As even a six-year-old could guess, de Beyn develops an “affinity” with Flora. She feels she “must say something to acknowledge what happened in Neqi, although nothing happened”. What will become of our star-cross’d lovers?

Even a sketch of the plot is revealing. The novel seems almost retro-engineered from those fatuous questions for reading groups that now regularly appear at the back of paperbacks. Jakob studies stones and Flora the weather – in what other ways are they different and similar? Discuss the ways in which women were professionally, intellectually, emotionally and sexually repressed in the 19th century. Does Flora exploit the Arctic as much as Armitage? One of Flora’s friends says that love is selfishness: do you agree? Talk about how the author uses the imagery of (a) the cold and the frigid (b) the natural and the unnatural (c) the spoiled and the unspoiled. Everything is neatly balanced and carefully flagged; much like supplies left buried in the snow.

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The novel suffers from a kind of noun-exoticism. There are many Inuit words in the text – erneq for son, naasut for flowers, kujappok for sex; all of them presented then dutifully glossed. It gives a patina of authenticity, but raises the question of why they aren’t speaking Inuit the whole time. And then there’s the kujappok. I don’t care sounding like a prude, but sex in novels should be like sex in life: either done well or not at all. There is only so much of “vixen cries, calling out, sharp, ah, ah, ah” and “briny tang” and “hot, sweet harbour” and “suggestive gleam of saliva” that I can read before crushing boredom sets in. A few paragraphs might be bearable; several whole chapters and I begin to think how much more interesting the iPad Terms and Conditions are.

This is a strangely cynical book: issues + mummy porn + nature writing + exoticism + sentimentality (the reviewer’s proof is emblazoned – “Follow the path to the freezing north. Follow your ambition. Follow your heart”.) That its title is an anagram of Pleasant Ordure I put down to the universe’s deep sense of irony.

Under A Pole Star by Stef Penney is published by Quercus, £18.99