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Sun at Midnight


Sun at Midnight

I’m a sucker for cold-climate books --- I mean, really cold, as in Antarctica. I am not, however, normally a reader of romance novels; I was surprised to find, looking into Rosie Thomas’ background, that this British writer’s 20 books fall into that category. She’s even won the Romantic Novel of the Year award --- twice.

I don’t care. SUN AT MIDNIGHT (originally published in the UK in 2004) is certainly a love story, but it’s also an intelligent, gripping read, neither dumb nor formulaic. I say hooray for Thomas, and to hell with genre prejudices.

Thomas, like her scientist protagonist, Alice Peel, is an adventurer. In 2000 and 2003, she logged two trips to the bottom of the world, spending time at a research base with the Eleventh Bulgaria Antarctic Expedition. The authenticity shows. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this book is its stunning sense of place: not just Thomas’ descriptions of the frozen landscape --- the light, the ice, the radiant skies --- but also the emotional wallop it packs.

Alice’s initial encounter with Antarctica is during a blizzard; she steps outside the hut into “a whirling wall of snow and sea fog, and the wind tearing as if it wanted to strip and flay her. … [A] world of such absolute hostility was completely new to her.”  A few days later, she has an utterly different experience, a glimpse of “crystalline calm.” A non-believer, she is startled when the sight of an exquisite rock formation makes her feel suddenly, puzzlingly, that this spot is holy, a temple created by “nature’s flawless architecture.” Already Antarctica has “peeled away a layer of her defenses,” forcing her --- literally --- to move out of her comfort zone.

"Reading, at its best, is transporting --- it takes us to another place. SUN AT MIDNIGHT does that brilliantly, conjuring a world of danger, intimacy, harsh beauty and infinite mystery that held me totally in thrall."

That’s the story right there: Alice’s transformation. At the start she is a cautious, security-minded geologist living in Oxford with her philandering artist boyfriend (admittedly, the theme of science vs. art, head vs. heart may be overplayed at times). Her only connection to Antarctica is through her mother, Margaret, whose celebrated TV documentaries about her work with whales and seals made her a sort of Jane Goodall of aquatic mammals.

Margaret is now neither young enough nor well enough to go back to the ice, but she prevails on Alice to accept an offer of a fully funded research stint at Kandahar Station, a new European base that’s the brain child of media mogul Lewis Sullavan. Reluctant at first, Alice soon realizes she is more like Margaret than she thought: greedy for change and willing to step into the unknown, risk her heart, think big.

But the book begins, oddly, not with Alice but with a tough customer named James Rooker: loner, drifter, jack of all trades. A former pilot, he is now working in construction in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in South America. (I was shocked by Rooker’s lamentably offhand description of the Mexican workers he supervises as small, dark-skinned and bad at the job. Evidently that sort of thing got by editors in 2004. I hope it no longer does.) Although clearly a head case, Rooker is also madly attractive; he has Romantic Interest written all over him. Fortuitously, he, too, goes south to work at Kandahar.

Here, Thomas throws in a thrilling twist: Alice discovers she is pregnant by the two-timing guy she left behind in Cambridge. By that time, she is as addicted to the ice as Margaret ever was, and she and the rest of the team have formed a family of sorts: sometimes fractious, racked by hostility and sexual tension, but also held by bonds of loyalty and love. And so she decides to tell no one, gambling that she’ll be home by the time the baby is anywhere close to due.

But complications, thick and fast as a snowfall, start to arrive --- a strained visit from Sullavan and his entourage; a near-catastrophe during a field trip away from the base; an unexpected change in the weather as winter comes on earlier than expected and they risk being trapped by the ice. These developments ramp up the tension, bringing Alice and Rooker closer. Finally, a catastrophic fire puts the whole team on the knife edge of survival, and…well, read the book.

Disappointingly, at the end Thomas seems to fall back on romantic conventions. The denouement is too tidy, too Hollywood. “No one who went to the ice ever came back unchanged”: Alice has heard this from her mother all her life. Undeniably, she is changed, not simply by her pregnancy and her love for Rooker, but by her passion for this raw, wild, lonely continent.

Yet Thomas does not give Alice real scientific ardor; in fact, her portrayals of Margaret and obsessive paleontologist Richard Shoesmith, the expedition leader, imply that people who are too absorbed in work lose their sense of human proportion. When Shoesmith risks his own life, and Rooker’s, for the sake of a rare fossil, Alice realizes, “It was people who were important” --- not penguin data or rock samples or weather records. Nobody will disagree. But it’s too simplistic a response for a character as complex as Alice’s. I wanted a bit of air at the end, leaving open the question of what’s next for this intrepid woman, not only in love but in work.

By and large, however, this is a terrific, smartly paced novel. During the most dramatic chapters, I was weeping, riveted, heart in mouth, barely aware of turning the pages. Reading, at its best, is transporting --- it takes us to another place. SUN AT MIDNIGHT does that brilliantly, conjuring a world of danger, intimacy, harsh beauty and infinite mystery that held me totally in thrall.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on July 28, 2017

Sun at Midnight
by Rosie Thomas

  • Publication Date: July 25, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press
  • ISBN-10: 1468314955
  • ISBN-13: 9781468314953