Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

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Review by Annabel

under a pole star

This year is becoming a vintage one for historical novels set in Arctic or icy northern climes: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, is a tale of exploration in 1880s Alaska (reviewed here); Ed O’Loughlin’s recent Minds of Winter is one I also want to read and partially concerns Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to discover the NorthWest Passage in the mid 1800s. Now we have Stef Penney’s latest set just before the turn of the 20th century to make a trio of such novels. All three of these books are chunky – Ivey and O’Loughlin weigh in at just sub-500 pages, but Penney’s has a hefty 596!

Under a Pole Star‘s two protagonists, Flora Mackie and Jakob de Beyn are wonderful characters – they don’t even meet until after page 200, yet you know they’ll end up lovers from the start – and it is their on-off relationship, which can only freely express itself in the frozen north of Greenland, that forms the core of the novel. Given the strictures of Victorian society, they manage to have a lot of sex during their various encounters!

The novel opens with a framing device set fifty years later. Flora, now an intimidating older lady is returning to the Arctic having outlived – by surviving – all the Victorian gentlemen explorers from that amazing period around the turn of the century. This framing story will pop up briefly between sections of the novel as an American journalist Randall attempts to gently prize the truth of what happened up there from Flora. It will also bring the novel to a fitting close.

Stepping back in time, we go to 1883. Flora is twelve, the daughter of a whaling ship captain from Dundee. As a child having lost her mother, she goes to sea with her father and is educated on board ship. The Inuit they meet in Greenland christen her ‘The Snow Queen’ – an epithet that is picked up by the press. This can’t last. Once she grows into a young woman, her father felt it was unsafe to continue taking her on his ship full of lusty men. The crew often take Inuit lovers when the ships moor in the pack-ice each year (including, as she’ll later find out, her father).

Flora goes to university where she specialises in the new science of meteorology, where she meets her first love – a young man who can’t marry her due to his situation. Instead, she gets herself an explorer husband and insists on going north with him, theirs is to be a scientific expedition, but when Freddie is injured during the journey, she takes over the reins. Reaching Greenland and establishing a base, she is delighted to meet all her Inuit friends again.

Meanwhile Jakob and his brother Hendrik have a troubled childhood in New York. Hendrik marries and becomes a butcher, but Jakob, by now a geologist, wants more from life and signs on to an expedition to survey and explore with his best friend Frank to Greenland led by a chap called Armitage.

The two expeditions are in neighbouring areas of Greenland at the same time. When Jakob meets Flora – there is a spark, but Flora is married and makes herself unavailable this time. Armitage is distrustful of her expedition’s aims, fearing that Flora’s crew will attempt to outdo him in finding new islands off Greenland’s northern coast. Armitage will let no-one stand in his way, he wants all the glory – and he is not afraid to massage the truth as Jakob will find out …

Over the next few years, there are further visits by both Flora and Jakob to Greenland. They do fall in love and furtive liaisons occur as and when they can wherever they are. Flora can’t bring herself to divorce Freddie though. If Victorian mores made Flora and Jakob’s romance frustrating (for the reader too sometimes!), the lives of the Inuit folk that the explorers stay with are fascinating. Their social structures were very different and make a real contrast. 

Penney has obviously researched her subject in detail – from the reinforced ice-resisting structures of the whaling ships, to Victorian lecture theatres; the Inuit people and the glaciers of Greenland. There was one point where she meets her old flame Mark Levinson again – he now lectures at the Regent Polytechnic in London. My alarm bells rang – a Polytechnic! In 1896!  But it’s perfectly true – this establishment really existed back then. All the detail is expertly woven into the story.

I particularly enjoyed the earlier sections – before Flora meets Jakob. This feels a little like heresy, but I’m always drawn to bluestocking tales in which intelligent women try to break the mould, once Jakob is in the picture, there is inevitably a bit of reversion to traditional roles – although Flora’s attitude remains modern for the day throughout.

Epic in feel, Under a Pole Star is another well-written and very enjoyable novel from Penney, recommended for those who like to get stuck into a big fat adventure.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would love to go to the far North one day.

Read Annabel’s Q&A with Stef Penney here.

Stef Penney, Under a Pole Star (Quercus, 2016) ISBN: 9781786481160, hardback, 596 pages.

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