There’s something about historical fiction set on islands that I just can’t seem to get enough of. The Guernsey Potato and Literary Society and The Light Between Oceans are two wonderfully isolated stories. Author Sara Sheridan has brought us another – this time on an island of ice.
The Ice Maiden, by Sara Sheridan, is set first in 1842 on Deception Island, where Karina has been widowed and is slowly starving to death now that she’s used up what little funds she had left. In desperation, she dresses as a boy and stows away in a ship which she assumes will take her north. Back towards the sister she knows will take her in, and who she misses badly.
But unbeknown to her, the Terror is bound south, for Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures. Karina has no choice but to accept her fate.
The first third of The Ice Maiden is a fairly standard historical fiction. Details have clearly been closely researched and I warmed to the characters quickly.
The story then morphs into a fascinating, heart-breaking ghost story of loss, betrayal and redemption.
Most of all, this is a story of the early Antarctic polar explorers and their fierce desire to be the first to plant a flag for their country at the South Pole.
If you’re looking for a story with a strong sense of place and a very interesting theory of the afterlife, I can highly recommend The Ice Maiden. It had me Googling “Antarctic cruises” by halfway through (they’re outrageously expensive, in case you’re wondering). Here’s a taster of the breathtaking descriptions in the novel:
At sea, there was always an element of blue between the water and the sky but here if you turned away from the shore, the whiteness could overtake you, like stepping through a curtain. Like wrapping yourself in a frozen shroud.
Sheridan’s words will make you feel the killing cold, fatal isolation and majestic beauty of the frozen continent.
Hope will make you go back
At its heart this is also a love story. Rest assured there are no fading damsels here, Karina is a woman of the world and has no qualms in pursuing her chosen love. She’s bemused by his British reserve. Originally from northern Europe, Karina travelled the world with her husband before being stranded on Deception Island.
She recognises that love and hope are equally strong and have the power to change the course of our lives. The truth of this passage floored me:
Sheepishly, she turned. Hope will make you go back, she thought. Hope was what had kept her on Deception too long. She might have stowed away on another ship. She might be home by now.
The context of the characters’ decisions is not left to reader interpretation based on our own experiences. For those of us lucky enough to live in relative 21st-century comfort, we’ve never had to make decisions based on life or death. In Antarctica most decisions are driven by survival and Sheridan makes this abundantly clear through the narrative. A false step can lead to death. Losing an item of clothing or choosing the wrong shoes will result in frostbite, amputation and possible death.
For the polar explorers though, the drive to survive is constantly underpinned by the need to be first to the pole. In the end, the desire to win will override every other instinct, even love.