I've long had an interest in polar exploration and, although my travels tend to take me to warm places that are filled with colour and vitality, I would, if money and time were not obstacles, indulge that passion by travelling to Antarctica. It's a place that attracted Rosie Thomas: the author spent a month living on a Bulgarian research station on Livingstone Island in Antarctica in order to gain an insight into life working in this unique environment for the men and women who spend months there in close confinement as they carry out scientific research.
My previous encounter with Rosie Thomas was not positive: she has a tendency to fill her novels with middle class bores and even then she frequently fails to deliver plausible dialogue and believable reactions. It was only because I remembered how vividly she presented the Greek island setting for her novel 'The Potter's House' that I abandoned my vow never to read another of Ms Thomas's books.
Alice Peel, a geologist working at Oxford University, gets the opportunity to join a group of research scientists working in Antarctica. Actually the invitation was offered to Alice's mother who is still feted in academic circles for the ground breaking research she carried out at the South Pole forty years ago; now her mother is too old and too unwell to make such a journey and so she asks Alice to take her place. Initially Alice refuses but she changes her mind when she is let down by her long term partner, a sculptor.
Although she's heard plenty about the Antarctic from her mother who loved the place, nothing can really prepare Alice for the reality of the frozen far south - the isolation, the unique beauty, the feeling of claustrophobia that comes with living in cramped quarters with a group of strangers. Soon though she realises how much she has come to love at least the landscape which she finds is more diverse and complex than she could ever have imagined. So too she notice a spark between herself and James Rooker, a quiet man who is one of the small team providing practical support to the scientific staff. Since his unhappy New Zealand childhood Rooker has spent his life running away from commitment and intimacy. Can he let down his guard and trust Alice, and can Alice trust Rooker with a secret she has only just learned about herself?
I can't decide whether Rosie Thomas writes only about the kind of people she knows and encounters in her own life, or whether she just struggles to create believable human beings. Most of the characters I've encountered in her novels are starchy and impersonal and engage in stilted dialogue that makes me want to shake some life into them. Even the relationship between Alice and her two best friends is portrayed without warmth though the three are meant to have known each other for years and are supposed to be close.
There's a kind of lazy stereotyping of characters that doesn't belong in the work of an author that writes as well as Rosie Thomas can. Instead of characters we get caricatures: Alice's mother is portrayed as a selfish career obsessed woman who travels the world as she pleases while her timid, hen-pecked husband stays at home dutifully looking after their daughter. There's a sense that scientists are passionless people incapable of showing emotion, while artistic people can't control theirs.
Among the other staff at the research centre there should be an interesting mix of nationalities and personalities: admittedly Ms Thomas attempts to mark them out as individuals but she makes the mistake of telling, rather than showing, which means she never really makes them distinctive and different. Often what the reader learns of the different personalities is based on Alice's reflections of her colleagues and there are few actual examples to illustrate that during the action of the story.
I'm pleased to say that Rosie Thomas writes about places more pleasingly than she writes of people and their behaviour and relationships. She was clearly inspired by her time in Antarctica because her enthusiasm for the landscape shines through and she conveys so much fine detail of a place that most people think of as simply 'white' and empty. By describing textures of the snow and ice and the variations in the light as well as the different 'types' of coldness and how that coldness affects not only the practicalities of work but also the demeanour of the scientists, Ms Thomas builds up a fascinating picture of what Antarctica is like; so few people have experienced it for themselves, myself included, but it seemed to me realistic.
In fact the landscape almost becomes a character such is the strength of Ms Thomas's writing. The effect of the fast changing weather conditions on the landscape are an important feature of the story. The worse the weather, the longer the scientists are confined to the research station and this puts a strain on relationships. The station is serviced by helicopter deliveries and the possibility that the aircraft may not be able to come casts a shadow over the team when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
The ghastly characters and stereotyping aside I enjoyed 'Sun at Midnight'; Rosie Thomas redeems herself with her captivating descriptions of the Antarctic and by creating a story that is exciting and gripping, even if the characters that play it out are hard to warm to. The well researched details are woven naturally into the story and to a greater extent this mollified my irritation with the characters.
Large parts of the novel reminded me of a really badly acted soap opera but I didn't have any problem staying put until the end. Ms Thomas provides her readers with not one but two exciting climaxes and writes with an accessible, engaging style.
For me the most enjoyable aspect of 'Sun at Midnight' is the attention to detail in the descriptions of Antarctica which highlight not only the harshness of the environment but also its beauty. For such beautiful writing I'm happy to put up with clichéd characters and a touch of implausibility.
496 pages in paperback, Kindle edition available.
Rosie Thomas writes with beautiful, effortless prose, and shows a rare compassion and a real understanding of the nature of love
This was the quote that greeted me within the first page of her book and was made by the Sunday Times, although Cosmopolitan and the Mail on Sunday were less wordy in their assessment of her abilities. I started reading the book with an open mind. It is a story that centers around two main characters, Alice Peel, and a man called Rooker, both finding themselves part of an expedition to the Antarctic, both for different reasons and both having circumstances that pursuaded them to take the decision to go there. The story is about a love affair, in extreme conditions, although giving away much more than that might spoil the enjoyment for the reader. It's about betrayal, and how it makes a human being make decisions that they would not normally take, and leads the reader into imagining which way the love story will turn as it follows the characters on the expedition through events from the "now" and the past.
The book boasts that Rosie Thomas has done her research for this unusual book that takes the reader to a small research station in the Antarctic region, although to me, this is where the research stopped, and in any case in a work of fiction was less important to me than getting the balance of characterizations right. Let's face it, how many readers would note inaccuracies about a polar station or the atmosphere of it ? Taking this premise a step further, what I believe readers would find difficult to associate with is the way in which the characters in the book interacted and reacted, and I was left with the impression that what the writer needed to research more than the Polar region in which the story is based, is honest human emotion, and here she failed miserably.
She's a very readable writer, and the 488 pages were not a chore. Her word flow is good and the lady can tell a story, although not as convincingly as I would have liked. For example, most of the characters of the story are upper crust people with middle class backgrounds. Alice Peel herself is overshadowed by a mother who is a famous scientist, and perhaps too protected by her father, and I suppose one could be lead to believe that the stuff upper lip Oxford background of Alice could account for what I found to be a cold read, although I believe that instead of trying to play the part of Alice, the writer should have known that interweaving characters, knowing how they would react in different circumstances, is more important than looking at the story from one angle and getting it wrong.
On explaining the male characters in the book, Rosie seems to have come unstuck, delving into the background of Rooker like walking in the dark, almost as if the writer had no experience whatsoever of anything less than British Middle class background, and not really convincing the reader of the plausibility of the male members of the expedition, whose descriptions and perceived instincts are not natural or flowing, almost as if the writer herself has little understanding of men.
The descriptions of the antarctic were picturesque and I liked this part of her writing very much, because you could feel some part of the writer herself coming into the background and the pictures painted were sufficiently interesting to keep me reading. What I felt was weak was relationships, reactions, consequences and here as the story unfolded, it felt like a soap opera gone wrong, where all the wrong actors and actresses had been chosen.
I could understand the strains that a confined living space with strangers, such as portrayed in her descriptions of life in the Antarctic, would indeed be difficult for people who were sometimes trapped by weather conditions for long periods of time. No-one likes that kind of restrictive day in, day out monotony perhaps or closeness of strangers, although even when characters were taken out of these circumstances and placed in different surroundings, the way in which their stories intertwined was stiff, starchy and somehow over-rehearsed.
The presentation of the book is good and tempting which is why I bought it and it was hailed on the front cover as The International Bestseller, although I suspect it was sold based on readers' experience of her earlier works, rather than on its' own merits.
Not put off by the lady's writing style, I think that I may try another book of hers because I like the clarity of her work, but given the choice would never have bought this book new at a price of Six Pounds Ninety Nine, because there are better stories out there at the price. Second hand, it may be a tempting proposition to a reader that wants to step into an Antarctic adventure, and is perhaps not as fussy with their reading as me, although this book disappointed me.
Publisher: Harpercollins Pub Ltd (June 30, 2005)
Originally printed in 2004 by Clays Limited, St Ives plc.
Also available in Hard cover.