By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 12:00 AM
The quest for the poles has long exercised a magnetic pull on all kinds of writers. It was the subject of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel and Charles Dickens's most popular play. Intrepid storytellers have trekked across the white page to tell the frostbitten tales of such real-life explorers as Sir John Franklin or to juice up the historical record as Dan Simmons does in "Terror" (2007). The wintry mix of courage, endurance and madness makes writing stories of polar exploration as tempting as licking a frozen doorknob.
The newest writer to venture into this realm is a young British woman named Amy Sackville. Her first novel, "The Still Point," captures all the bizarre extremes of the North Pole, from the face-freezing temperatures of the Arctic to the overheated romance of the endeavor, from bracing adventure to stultifying dullness. But her real interest is the predicament of those left behind by these obsessed heroes. How, she asks, can any of us go about our tepid lives in the shadow of men who lived, however briefly, at the top of the world?
The novel, long-listed for England's Orange Prize, takes place in a single summer day at the ancestral English home of Simon and Julia. He's a bit of a prig -- all punctuality and sharpened pencils -- who goes off to the office with his tightly repressed irritations, while his wife makes an effort to keep busy around the house, pursued by anxieties about her marriage and her mental health. The nod to Virginia Woolf's famous novel seems intentional, although Julia is a less complicated figure -- let's call her "Mrs. Walloway" -- lounging through the rooms in "a comforting dawdle" that barely masks her depression. The great risk in representing boredom, of course, is that you may succeed . . . and Sackville puts far too many convincing pages up front.
But once the story gains a little momentum, "The Still Point" becomes increasingly engaging. Julia is the great-grandniece of Edward Mackley, a late-19th-century explorer who died trying to reach the North Pole. She was raised on the tale of his bravery, but what made an even deeper impression is the burnished image of his wife, Emily, who said goodbye to her new husband and then waited, Penelope-like, for decades. "This is the legacy that Julia owes a debt to," Sackville writes, "both the legend of the figure in the snow, and the woman left behind who shaped the legend while she waited."
And so Julia spends her listless days trying to organize Mackley's artifacts in the attic and reading over his travel logs, but mostly she fantasizes about the immaculate passion between him and Emily. "Waiting, serenely, with a pale ache," Julia thinks. "Desire over great distances: this is the romance of the story, Emily's legacy. Emily waiting, waiting, the sea growing wider and hardening to ice as she stretched out towards him, watching him grow distant." Their "great romance," unfettered by no more than a few weeks of actual contact with each other, glows with the kind of purity that makes Julia's marriage seem disappointing, even tedious.
If all that subtle domestic drama leaves you a bit cold, the novel's second part burns far more bright. Here we follow Edward Mackley and his crew toward the North Pole, through the congealing sea into the crystalline graveyard: "They smashed a way through or found gullies between, until they gave up on negotiating routes and allowed the ice to grip and release her at will, knowing she could stand it. At dawn and dusk, a daily cycle, it rolled and piled in extraordinary forms all about them; the men on deck saw mountains, monsters and beasts rise and topple, abstract complex geometries, gigantic crystals glinting off every surface and smashing slowly into glittering facets." We know their fate from the start, but it's still thrilling to read about the "months of dull civility before barbarity set in." Sackville's narration of this slow-motion disaster grows ever more gripping as these once-idealistic men are forced to relinquish their dogs, their tents, their fingers.
As Julia rereads this record and swoons again at the thought of her great-great-aunt writing hopeful, unmailed letters to Edward, she considers the tragedy of everything she and Simon can't express. "The things they do not say only grow louder with time," she thinks, "no matter how neatly the towels are stacked, how clean the sheets."
Although Sackville is only 29, she already knows a lot about the tension of a marriage gone fallow, particularly between two people who, despite their mutual irritations, still love each other. As the day progresses, Julia's romantic ideal suffers a terrible blow, and it looks as if Simon might finally give up on his languid wife, but evening brings surprises and the promise of a new affection that's better than any sepia-toned legend.
Let her develop a more efficient itinerary, and with this lovely style, an intelligently romantic voice, and the ability to handle modern and historical settings, Sackville will write an even more powerful novel next time.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.