Laline Paull spung to fame with her novel The Bees. Her follow up, The Ice (review copy from 4th Estate) is an interesting but ultimately flawed near-future story about friendship and betrayal, set in the harsh environment of the Arctic.
Sean Cawson is a businessman who has had a life-long fascination with the Arctic and with the great explorers of the past. Together with his oldest friend, a famous environmentalist called Tom Harding, he purchases an old whaling station in the Arctic Circle and converts it into a boutique hotel and retreat for the super-rich. But tragedy occurs almost as soon as the project is finished and open for businss: Harding is killed in a freak accident. Cawson is seriously injured, but survives. Three years on, Harding’s body is recovered, and the ensuing inquest is the frame for the novel to explore Cawson and Harding’s friendship and the circumstances that led to the accident.
There is a strong thread running through the book of climate change and its impacts. The melting of the Arctic sea ice has opened up new trade routes and opportunities for tourism, but at an ecological price. The tensions between Cawson and Harding come from the right way to respond to that. To Harding, the need to protect the environment and prevent further damage is paramount. To Cawson it is an inevitability that society must change and adapt to, albeit in a sensitive way. There was the scope here for an interesting and nuanced exploration of this dilemma in the book, but unfortunately Paull dodges this, choosing a fairly simplistic environmental message.
Paull’s novel is a story of Great Men doing Great Things. She is trying to draw linkages between the big beasts of the corporate world and the explorers of the past (and Paull’s research into the history of Arctic exploration is one of the real strengths of the book, shining through strongly). In both cases ambition, resolve and resilience are required in order to thrive and prosper. To Paull, the world of business is no less harsh and unforgiving than the Arctic. One mis-step or poor judgement can lead to ruin, and only the boldest will succeed.
But this approach makes the novel feel tired. Ulitmately, The Ice is the story of Cawson’s mid-life crisis, as he comes to question his assumptions and path in life. The female characters in the novel are particularly poorly served, fulfilling little more than stereotypical set dressing: the hysterical ex-wife, the rebellious teenage daughter, the femme fatale, the kooky Chinese business partner. Much of this is down to Paull’s close narrative focus on Cawson. We see the world and the people in it through his eyes. While some of those judgements change as Cawson changes, Paull doesn’t (as some other writers might) clearly show us that these are his perceptions of more sophisticated and fully-formed characters.
The Ice is interesting and ambitious, but just doesn’t quite succeed for me.
Goodreads rating: 3*