Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks to you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?
These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is abnormal enough for Polar life. Cooper’s not sure if this is an achievement, but she knows she has nothing to lose. Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, she’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica, where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. The only thing the Polies have in common is the conviction that they don’t belong anywhere else. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already-imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the centre of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.
A good start to this year of reading around the world – this book is a mix of gutwrenching heartbreak, ponderings about the nature of the scientific method, and hilarity. A couple of the scenes made me laugh out loud, while others made me cringe. I guess now is a good time to warn readers that there’s body horror in this book? Ye be warned.
I thought the cast of characters was intriguing and engaging, though some of the other art fellows in Cooper’s group read as a touch stereotypical. I found the scientists and the construction workers (the Beakers and the Nailheads) more well-rounded and that makes sense since they’re the ones we spend the most time with. There’s a major theme of the relationship between science and religion (or, politically-sponsored ‘religion’) and Shelby maps out a brilliant examination of scientific belief as a kind of religion where scientists can be tempted to alter data to support the conclusions they think are correct.
Descriptions of life on the base were very believable. Shelby thoughtfully explains the sub-culture that has developed among the Polies. Despite the fact that the characters are all stuck in a bubble at the bottom of the world, the book has an actual plot with genuine stakes – it’s not just the introspective navel-gazing of a typical literary novel. To be honest, I wished that Shelby wouldn’t switch to other characters’ POV during the moments of increased tension, because these changes necessitated a backstory dump for each character and this really cut off the plot mid-stride. Apart from that, this was a fun and gentle read!
Next month is Western Europe and I’ve chosen Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndor (translated by Tim Mohr).
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂