Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
I have just spent the past week, on and off, reading a book I both loved and hated. I stopped reading it several times, but after a day or two I went back to it because I had to know what was going to happen next, and there were some parts that were just so good.
Under a Pole Star by Stef Penny is the story of a fictional female explorer in the late 19th century. Flora Mackie first travels to Labrador and Greenland when she is only a child, the daughter of a Scottish whaler. She loves the north and the people who live there and determines to return, which she does time after time.
After earning a degree in Meteorology Flora is determined to return to the North. Marriage to an older man who has the wherewithal to finance and secure sponsors makes this possible, although the marriage itself is shockingly awful.
There are many American and British expeditions in this golden age of Arctic exploration. Often the same explorers return year after year, and often overwintering a year or more. Flora is one of very few women mounting and leading expeditions, returning to the Greenland villages she knew as a girl
Stef Penny writes beautifully about the north, the spectacular beauty of the landscape, the desperate cold and the danger it holds. Her descriptions of life among the Inuit people is fascinating to read, and the interaction that comes with the arrival of the explorers. All of this I loved.
What I did not love were the very graphic, and very long, passages detailing the passionate sex life of Flora and her lover. I would throw the book aside – and then after a few days go back to it, until the next such passage. I admit to being a bit of a prude, but this was so over the top that I am astounded the author felt it added anything to the novel. The story of the exploration and the relationships between the characters is so fine that brief, and far less explicit, passages about the love and intimacy of the couple would have been far more appropriate in the opinion of this reader. I think I would still have understood that this was a love affair that transcended all else in their lives.
The novel moves between 1948, the late 1800s and the early 1900s. While travelling by plane for what is essentially a photo op at the North Pole, Flora remembers her past. I found the elderly Flora a far less interesting person than the young woman who had both the intelligence and courage to make her own way in what was very much a man’s world. And perhaps it is this, too, that makes the obsession with sexual fulfillment so at odds with the story of exploration in a place so far from what we call civilization, in such a dangerous environment. Life really did depend on the working relationship established with the Inuit people.
Under a Pole Star is very much a book worth reading – but I think a very talented writer has done herself a disservice by not recognizing that the explicit sex is a detriment rather than an asset to what would otherwise be a novel I would recommend unreservedly.