Sun at Midnight, by Rosie Thomas

Rosie Thomas’ Sun at Midnight was recommended somewhere (maybe a thread on books with unusual settings?) and I added it to my library list because its protagonist is a female scientist working at an Antarctic research station.

Blurb:

An epic love story and adventure set against the stunning backdrop of Antarctica.

Alice Peel is a geologist. She believes in observation and proof. But now she stands alone on the deck of a rickety Chilean ship as a stark landscape reveals itself. Instead of the familiar measurable world, everything that lies ahead of her is unknown and unpredictable.

Six weeks earlier her life was comfortably unfolding in an Oxford summer. Then, with her relationship suddenly in pieces, she accepted an invitation to join a group working at the end of the earth: Antarctica.

James Rooker is a man on the run. He’s been running since his childhood in New Zealand. Now, there is nowhere further to go. He has taken a job working on the same small Antarctic research station.

Alice discovers an ice-blue and silver world, lit by sunlight. Nothing has prepared her for the beauty of it, or the claustrophobia of a tiny base shared with eight men and one other woman. The isolation wipes out everyone’s past, and tension crackles in the air. But there is a jolt of recognition between Alice and Rooker that is like nothing she has ever known. And it is in Antarctica that she discovers something else that will change her life forever … if she survives.

I loved the first half or so of this book. Thomas takes her time in developing her characters and there’s a lot going on: romantic relationships and their discontents, friendships, parent-child relationships. I really liked the quiet, reflective, pragmatic Alice, a geologist who’s always felt herself in the shadow of her famous mother (who worked in the Antarctic) and is closer to her father, who has always been with her when her mother goes off on adventures.

The novel really takes off once Alice leaves Oxford for Kandahar Station–a research center abandoned by the British and bought by a Richard Branson type who funds a European Union expedition. Thomas (the pen name of journalist Janey King) spent time in a Bulgarian Antarctic station, and her picture of life at Kandahar feels authentic. The physical descriptions of the setting are vivid and evoke Alice’s growing love of the initially frightening world of ice. I was engrossed by the developing tensions and shifting loyalties among the 10 members of the mission, who were often stuck together in a small hut for days at a time during blizzards.

Slowly Alice changes, or discovers parts of herself she never knew. While I wouldn’t call the story a love triangle, exactly, Alice is first drawn to the expedition leader, Richard Shoesmith, who like her is a scientist in the shadow of a famous forebear, determined to prove himself worthy. In a way, though, the time on the ice pares the characters down to their essentials, and as it does Alice turns to Rooker instead (partly because he makes her feel safe–like her, he’s determined to survive). Rooker is in some ways a standard romance hero, a man who has walled himself off from emotion because of a painful secret in his past. He never felt like a cardboard trope, however. This is really more Alice’s journey than genre romance, though; there are passages from Rooker’s point of view, but hers predominates.

I was less enamored of the later chapters, when the plot took a turn for the dramatic. I don’t want to spoil anything, because I did find these developments both surprising and page-turningly suspenseful. If I’d paid more attention to the blurb (hello, “an epic love story and adventure” and “if she survives” signal drama, Liz!) I would have been better prepared for the shift. This is really a matter of reader taste rather than the author’s skill. But the high drama in which it was born did make me less than persuaded that Alice and Rooker’s romance would last. (And the end was a touch cheesy for me).

The line I copied out in my reading journal, from a scene where Alice’s mother Margaret reminisces about waiting out a blizzard for two weeks, alone in a tent at her field site and subsisting on quarter rations:

“I just waited,” was all she said about it. “It’s not very long, out of a lifetime, is it? To get what you want?”

That was a message about survival of anything that really spoke to me.

Reading this made me think about labels. I guess I’d call it women’s fiction. But why? Cover of Sun at Midnight. On the right, a slim young woman in a white shirt and cargo pants leans against a wall, gazing at a window.  The background is all white and misty. I guess that implies "Antarctica"?The last book I read, written by a man with a male protagonist, focused on domestic settings and romantic relationships, supposedly female fictional preoccupations. This one has plenty about relationships, sure, but it’s also on that classic “masculine” theme, (Wo)Man vs. Nature. So why does Thomas get the romance-centric blurb and soft-focus covers (at least my copy features snow, unlike the one at right)? Partly it’s sexism, sure. But I think it’s also that Thomas writes general rather than “literary” fiction. If, say, Andrea Barrett wrote this plot, which I can imagine, it would get a different cover and blurb–and it would, of course, be a different book.

Verdict: despite some reservations, I really enjoyed this. I see Rosie Thomas has a big backlist, many of them featuring “exotic” locations. Anyone read any?

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2 Responses to Sun at Midnight, by Rosie Thomas

  1. Kaetrin says:

    I read a few Rosie Thomas books in my twenties. I remember them as okay but that’s about it. Sorry, that’s not much help is it? 🙂

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    So why does Thomas get the romance-centric blurb and soft-focus covers (at least my copy features snow, unlike the one at right)? Partly it’s sexism, sure. But I think it’s also that Thomas writes general rather than “literary” fiction. If, say, Andrea Barrett wrote this plot, which I can imagine, it would get a different cover and blurb–and it would, of course, be a different book.

    This made me think of an article I read some years back which compared the covers of literary novels written by women to those written by men. The article argued that sexism in cover design was alive and well even when it comes to literary fiction. The article included pictures of covers as examples. I’ve searched high and low for it but can’t find it, alas. I agree though that Andrea Barrett has been fortunate in the cover department.

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