Translated by Adam King
Reviewed by Gill Davies
John Kåre Rake is a successful Norwegian screen writer and this is his first novel. It’s a mysterious thriller that uses its setting at the North Pole to put the reader through a tense and almost physically uncomfortable experience. An elderly scientist, Zakariassen, has received sponsorship funding for what is likely to be his last visit to observe changes brought about by global heating. He is accompanied by a younger woman, Anna, the daughter of an old friend, who agreed to join him to help her forget a recent trauma. She is ex-army, trained in survival techniques by Special Command forces, which should help them if difficulties crop up as they float on the ice. Their living space, laboratory and mode of transport is a hovercraft. Thus we have two vulnerable, isolated, people waiting for a disaster to happen. That arrives with a distress signal from Ice Dragon, a Chinese base two hours away. Solar storms are interfering with radio satellite communication, there’s a fierce snowstorm building up, but the pair decide it’s their duty to go to help. From this point, things can only get worse, much worse. What they find at the Chinese base is an inexplicable and harrowing murder scene. Now they must simultaneously keep themselves alive, find the explanation for the crime, and protect themselves from the killer(s).
So far, so generic: an unknown killer out there in the dark who the “heroes” must find and combat. However, the polar setting gives this an original twist, making the darkness literal and unrelenting. Just staying alive makes huge physical demands; the cold is exhausting, movement is difficult in bulky waterproof layers, hoods limit visibility. The unseen menace is as much the place as the human enemy. The novel vividly creates the texture and feel of the bitter cold, the cutting winds and perpetual darkness. The other unusual twist to the formula is the character and role of the central figure. Anna is in her mid thirties, still traumatised by an incident when she worked with NATO special forces fighting IS in Syria. She recovered from her wounds but lost her partner, and abandoned her career. A predictable fictional situation for a pair of super-fit macho heroes develops into something more interesting. Anna is experienced and very well trained: she knows how to manage in dangerous situations but her trauma temporarily disables her at critical times. She even gets flashbacks of the dust and heat of desert war in the freezing pitch-black of a polar storm.
The novel also takes us beyond action-thriller violence into geopolitics. Zakariassen’s research base is in the Fram Strait where the impact of global heating is particularly visible (It has heated by as much as 4 degrees centigrade from pre-industrial levels.) While most of us are horrified by the consequences of this, it appears as an opportunity to the assembling Great Powers. The Americans have a base on Thule, the Russians a meteorological station at the northern tip of Siberia. Even the Chinese are there, despite having no border in the area. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo: “The North Pole and the regions surrounding it do not belong to any nation but are a resource that belongs to all the people of the world. China has a population of over one billion inhabitants… and will use its strengths to participate actively in the development of the Arctic.” A glimpse of a starving polar bear reminds us of the consequences of “development” and of seeing the region in terms of “resources” to be fought over.
When the ice melts sufficiently, Chinese super tankers will be able to sail through, cutting their journey times to deliver desirable if unnecessary goods to people around the world. We may have thought of the North Pole as remote from humans and culture but the context for the novel is the race to open up the area to financial and political power. Zakariassen says,
Right under our feet are the greatest undiscovered resources in the world. It’s like the Wild West in the age of the pioneers. Nobody ever thought about the North Pole as a place worth owning, only as a place to be conquered by explorers.
I read this during the coldest spell of winter weather in England for ten years.
While reading it I was reminded of several of its forbears, both atmospherically and thematically. In Shelley’s Frankenstein – the pursuit of the creature over the polar wastes powerfully expresses science’s struggle for domination over nature. In John Carpenter’s film The Thing, American scientists encounter a monster at their isolated Antarctic station. Like The Ice, it touches on cornered masculinity and imperialism. It reminded me too of Sarah Moss’s chilling Cold Earth about a group of archaeologists excavating early settlements in Greenland who are suddenly cut off from the modern world as it is swept by a virus. Then there is Hannah Kent’s wonderful Burial Rites set in 19th century Iceland. In each case, extreme settings are perfect places to test and expose character, confront the reader and raise difficult personal and political questions. My only reservation about The Ice is that it became a little too generic towards the end, losing some of its thought-provoking quality in pursuit of ever increasing tension and excitement. But what lingered for me were moments like this:
Outside the wind was howling like a pack of mad coyotes. The cabin walls were vibrating under the pressure. Anna thought that … even if the killer had ten weapons and a pile of ammunition, they would be useless to him in this murderous storm. But deep inside a sense was rising that the North Pole would have something to say in the matter. That the kingdom of ice would be taking its revenge for the death sentence that humanity had brought upon it.
John Kåre Raake, The Ice (Pushkin Press, 2021). 978-1782276920, 397pp., paperback.
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