Sometimes a novel arrives which captures the feeling and spirit of the age perfectly (I believe the Germans have a word for just that). Vicki Jarrett’s Always North is just such a novel. It may have been a long time coming (I first read a short extract in Gutter magazine in 2011) but the timing of its publication is impeccable, as Jarrett looks at concerns and questions about climate change and uses them to examine many other aspects of the modern world.
It could be said to be a book of two halves, pre and post what I’m going to call the ‘terrible event’. In the first the crew of the Polar Horizon, an Arctic commercial vessel made up of sailors, scientists, and corporate types, are ‘mapping’ the area for reasons which are not entirely clear, and not entirely legal. Secrets are kept, and relationships strained, as Jarrett beautifully captures the effect this strange world, and the creatures who live there, have on the visitors, with the tensions created clear from the start.
There is also a polar bear (undoubtedly the literary animal du jour) who, as well as representing the consequences of human intervention on the natural world, works as a cross between the shark in Jaws and Moby Dick, with the allusions clearly deliberate (“Call me Isobel”, is how the central character introduces herself to her shipmates). If I mention other cultural points of reference, such as Alien(s), The Revenant and The Thing, then you’ll begin to get an idea as to the tone of these sections of the book as Jarrett blends multiple genres, touching on thriller, horror, and sci-fi – although the ‘fi’ in the latter is too ‘sci’ for comfort.
The second half is set in a Scotland where jobs are hard to come by, day-to-day living is a challenge, and people often drink to forget – imagine! Isobel has to try to come to terms with what happened on the Polar Horizon, how the world has changed since then, and her part in both. Guilt sits on one shoulder, justification on the other as they battle for her conscience, and it’s a feeling which will be all too familiar to anyone who has one of those.
The atmosphere Jarrett creates throughout is tense and even challenging, but you are not meant to feel comfort while reading Always North – and the sense of unease created is palpable and stays with you once the book ends. I have no doubt I will still be thinking about it for the rest of the year, and beyond.
That is also down to the writing which is impeccable in all aspects. There is a welcome dark humour which runs throughout, and there are images, phrases, characters, and ideas, which are unforgettable. But most impressively there is humanity at its core, as well as a clear understanding of what motivates us, both as individuals and as a species, which helps avoid sweeping statements and generalisations and raises it above most other novels that look to deal with such a serious subject.
Always North is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘wedunnit, and it’s time to acknowledge that and take responsibility’, but if that makes it sound like a ‘worthy’ read then I have given you a false impression as it is far from it. Vicki Jarrett has managed to write a novel which clarifies current thoughts and ideas presenting them in a way which express fear, anger, and frustration, but still offers hope, not only in what is written but how it is written. When the truth is being constantly challenged as fabrication then perhaps it is in fiction where answers can be found and serious discussion is to be had.
Posted in: Books