Always North by Vicki Jarrett

December 16, 2019

We all have to work to live, even if it is an illegal survey for oil in the rapidly melting Arctic. Software engineer Isobel needs to eat like everyone, and that’s how she fell into the job that leads her to the most northerly place on our planet.

As part of a weathered crew of sailors, scientists and corporate officers she sails into the ice where their advanced software Proteus will map everything there is to know. A great icebreaker leads their way into the brutal environment, and the days grow longer, time ever more detached, as they pass through the endless white expanse of the ice. 

But they are not alone. They have attracted the attention of seals, gulls and a hungry, dedicated polar bear. The journey to plunder one of the few remaining resources the planet has to offer must endure the ravages of the ice, the bear and time itself.

Regular readers of The Eloquent Page will be aware of my fondness for apocalyptic fiction. It’s a sub-genre I constantly find myself drawn towards. Always North by Vicki Jarrett is an introspective character study of a woman watching our destruction and I absolutely loved it.

The novel is set in two different time periods, just prior to the event that sets off the environmental catastrophe and many years later.

When we first meet Isobel she is, much like the rest of us, consumed by the vagaries of modern life. She has a job that pays the bills and is happy enough to coast along maintaining some sort of directionless status quo. Isobel’s not a bad person, a little self-absorbed perhaps but aren’t we all? Her work takes Isobel all over the world and her latest assignment is as far from home as she has ever been. An incident during the voyage has far reaching implications, the planet is sending a message and Isobel finds herself at the genesis of something completely new.

One of the things I liked most about Always North is that we get to see two distinctly different versions of our main character.

The chapters set twenty years in the future reveal a much-changed Isobel, the intervening years have left their mark. There is hardness to her that wasn’t there before. What is left of the United Kingdom has become a lawless place barely held together by a government incapable of functioning for the good of anyone*. It’s fascinating to see how the slow collapse of society has ground Isobel down by increments.

There are still flashes of hope however. Somewhere deep inside is a steadfast resolve that won’t allow Isobel to give in. No matter how difficult things become part of her refuses to accept that the path we have made for ourselves cannot be undone. The fact Isobel manages to keep moving forward is an incredible feat of perseverance. I don’t imagine for a second that I would have lasted anywhere near as long.

Environmental change is one of those fears that wakes me in the middle of the night. I don’t have any children, but I do have nieces and nephews and I worry about what they will have to face in fifty years from now. There is little denying that rampant consumerism and rapid industrial change, without fear of consequence, has left a scar on our planet. Novels like Always North don’t just entertain they inform. Ultimately this is a thoughtful, inward looking vision of an apocalypse. The question ultimately becomes are we prepared to live with the damage we have wrought or are we going to do something to try and reverse it. Jarrett’s cautionary tale is a stark reminder that we need to change our behaviour for the benefit everyone.  Fans of books like Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and My Name is Monster by Katie Hale will find a lot to appreciate here.

Always North strikes me as a book that it’s well worthwhile reading multiple times. There are tiny details in the characterisation and narrative that once I got to the end of the novel, I realised were far more important than at first glance. The story has a multi layered feel. You would be wrong in thinking this is just a book about the end of the world, it is far more. Vicki Jarrett uses the fears of modern life to explore a whole host of ideas. I was left pondering about the nature of how we perceive time, the interconnectedness of all things and our place in the world. I’m a huge fan of fiction that elicits such a thought-provoking response.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to The Grey by Marc Streitenfeld. It’s a haunting, atmospheric collection of tracks that lends itself particularly well to the tone of the author’s writing.

Always North is published by Unsung Stories and is available now. Highly recommended.

*Feels pretty topical right about now.

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