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Sun at Midnight - Capturing the Beauty of Antarctica
Sun at Midnight - Rosie Thomas
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Sun at Midnight - Rosie Thomas
Advantages: Fabulous descriptions of Antarctica; well researched; engaging style
Disadvantages: Poor character development & dialogue; implausible in parts
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.
Summary: An aga saga shifted to the South Pole