The Ice, Laline Paull’s second novel, is set in a not-so-distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted. Boats are cruising around the newly-liquid North Pole, where environmental concerns have intensified, and where old university friends Sean Cawson and Tom Harding have recently snapped up a prime Arctic property in the shape of Midgard Lodge, located in a restricted area of the territory. Tom is passionate about tackling climate change, and he and Sean plot to gain a financial stake in the Arctic in order to place themselves among the movers and shakers who can actually affect policy in the region. However, it’s clear from the outset that Sean has a slightly different take on their ultimate purpose. The Ice begins four years after the initial acquisition of the property, when Tom’s body is discovered in a glacier. It’s assumed that his death after the collapse of an ice cave a year earlier was a tragic accident, but as the inquest into his death begins, it becomes evident that there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye.
The Ice is so completely different from Paull’s debut, The Bees, that it has to be taken on its own merits; whether or not you liked The Bees will probably bear no relation at all to whether you like The Ice. Personally, I found The Bees baffling, with its curiously directionless plot, passive heroine and simplistic dystopian trappings, so The Ice was definitely a better read for me. Nevertheless, it wasn’t without its own problems. While there are some excellent chapters, much of the plot is rather slow, and I found myself most captivated by the scenes set during Tom’s life, as I simply found him a more interesting character than the rather unmotivated, weak and selfish Sean, who has an especially unpleasant attitude to most women. Paull does pretty well with her main players; I particularly liked Ruth Mott, Arctic biologist and Tom’s ex-lover, who is strong without ever verging into the stereotypical territory of Strong Female Character. But her background cast tends to be cartoonish; I was impatient from the start with her moralistic portrayal of Arctic tourists ‘ravenous for bear’. Overall, I found that the novel struggled to establish a strong through-line, despite the hook of Tom’s death, and kept wandering off on tangents, not helped by the flashes back and forward in time.
The pace of the novel was further broken up by the long quotations, largely from the memoirs of Arctic explorers, but also from sources such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, that Paull inserts before every chapter. Some of these (though surprisingly few – and I love reading about Arctic and Antarctic exploration!) were interesting in their own right, but very few seemed to bear much relation to the story at hand. At times, I felt they acted as shorthand for facts that Paull ought to have woven into the main narrative – for example, the description of pickled auk or the story of the explorer who hacked his way out of the ice with his own frozen excrement. Wonderful stories – such as the Inuit legend of ‘The Great Bear’ – also feel too separate from the text. There are some great descriptions, but I did not get as strong a sense of the Arctic from this novel as I hoped I might. It’s a strange beast, a literary thriller that doesn’t quite deliver on either front – the last few pages are especially bizarre – and while it’s clear that Paull is a consistently original writer, I’m not sure that her work is for me.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher.