In the Antarctic there is no dust. No insects can survive. Not much of anything can survive, certainly not humans without a great infrastructure of food supplies and fuel. Living in the Antarctic is to be at once free from the real world, released from its impurities and diseases, and at the same time totally dependent on it.
The Antarctic still thwarts us in many of the technological victories over the planet that we take for granted everywhere else. It's very difficult to get to, for one thing, with a long journey via the Falklands, taking advantage of short windows of good weather conditions. Fresh food is delivered but supplies are precious. The polar winter can cause grave mental disruption to those who experience it, leaving survivors unable to relate to anyone who has not been to the Antarctic.
In Jean McNeil's new novel, The Ice Lovers, Helen, a journalist and historian, sets off in 2016 from a London much changed from today, disfigured by pandemic and global warming yet carrying on as normal in the midst of crisis. Helen is heading for the Antarctic to look into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death, four years earlier, of Nara, a scientist studying the effects of warming water on marine species.
Helen is accompanied to the base by David, a high-up in the UK Foreign Office responsible for the polar regions. For years, his job was little more than an afterthought, until ice melt began to cause international tensions and he was propelled into a position of some influence.
Most of the cast on the base is still the same as it was in 2012, including Luke, a pilot who fell in love with Nara after they were trapped by weather in their plane for several days. Nara could not love Luke in return; instead she fell for Alexander, cold and unresponsive. Nara's death, or presumed death, since her body has not been found, is a sensitive subject, with the other inhabitants wary of Helen's motives.
Helen and David are forced to overwinter at the base during an international lockdown to contain a deadly virus. Free from disease and the fear of disease, the Antarctic is viable as a place to live - as long as the outside world continues to support it. During this winter, Helen reads Nara's diaries and comes to understand her subject, realizing the importance of the relationships that ran below the surface, out of sight. McNeil handles this well, demonstrating how several characters were implicated in Nara's death, with a gruesome and unexpected twist.
Like the ice of its subject, the writing in the novel hides great complexities with surface simplicity and clarity. McNeil has a sure hand and a deft touch with prose, and an ability to blend, for each character, profound inner experience with the awkwardnesses of social interactions.
A disconcerting mix of hysteria and calm adaptation is another of McNeil's great achievements, bringing to life a near future devastated by disease and natural disaster, yet despite the fear and the panic, the characters - whether in London, the Falklands or the Antarctic -just keep on going about their daily business, since it turns out that there is no other option.
McNeil, who is from Nova Scotia but who has lived in the UK for almost two decades, knows London well. She integrates Londoners' current political and environmental concerns into her work - the spectre of identity cards, the exceptionally high price of individual-journey tickets on the tube compared with a prepaid pass that tracks each passenger's movements, the spiralling costs of the 2012 Olympics, a spate of exceptionally mild winters - to make the city's future come alive in the novel.
The Antarctic, on the other hand, is all about the unfamiliar, the awe - in both senses - it inspires in every visitor, whether new or returning. It is also the scene of even more frightening environmental changes at the same time as being the site of a base where routine never changes, work carries on, and winter darkness lasts for months at a time, its end marked by a glimmer of light that lasts a few seconds and is much celebrated.
The two female characters - the Antarctic world is overwhelmingly male - are sometimes a little hard to separate. Even though the chapters often indicate which character they are about, it's not always easy to remember which woman is narrating or being narrated. In part, this is because of McNeil's efforts to capture the intensity of the Antarctic experience - which she does very well - but which must be broadly the same for all the characters, especially two women who are both overwintering for the first time and developing a relationship in incredibly claustrophobic conditions.
The Ice Lovers is an accomplished novel, with its created worlds close enough to our own to be recognizable, yet different enough to be alarming. If McNeil's predictions for the near future prove accurate, she may never, unlike her characters who yearn to be back in the region once they have left, have the chance to return to the Antarctic as it currently exists, both physically and politically.
J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in Canada and England.