I went into this thinking it would be a bit like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, partly due to the cover, but also due to the prospect of a young woman going on a dangerous expedition into the unknown, and the resulting ecological devastation she witnesses firsthand. But that’s about where the similarities end. Izzy is a restless young woman with a middling sense of morality who rationalizes illegally surveying the protected Arctic wilderness for her corporate bosses with the thought that someone else would do it if she didn’t. She embarks on the Polar Horizon with a crew that includes wary Captain Bjornsen, sexy second officer Jules, her partner in tech and occasionally bed Grant, and the irritating pencil pusher Max, sent by corporate to breathe down everyone’s necks about profitability.
As they head further and further north through the Arctic wastes, their path seems to mirror that of a polar bear that appears to be much older than it should be. The polar bear can’t possibly be tracking them… could it? As the intensity of near-endless daylight begins to take its toll on Izzy, the Proteus programming she and Grant have set up for the expedition begins to malfunction, setting off a chain reaction of events that will send a bloodstained Polar Horizon racing for the safety of southern waters.
Years later, Izzy is barely ekeing out a living in a world devastated by global warming when Grant shows up, offering her a job. Out of desperation, Izzy accepts. And then things get weird.
Always North is a fascinatingly constructed novel that deals with environmental collapse in a way reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, but with an audacious literary technique that I’m hard pressed to find comparisons to (tho this may speak to my idiosyncratic reading habits that gravitate more towards story than art.) Vicki Jarrett does with her narrative what figure skaters do with ice, cutting graceful, nearly symmetrical loops in their media for an effortless beauty that belies the strength behind it. Much like I felt with the afore-mentioned Annihilation, this is a book that grows lovelier in the remembering, tho for very different reasons. The ending of Always North is both unsettling and beautiful, incomplete yet strangely perfect. I want to know more, but any more writing would ruin the plot’s delicate balance. I will say that this book hearkened back, for me, to New Wave science fiction of the 1960s & 70s, exploring climate change and the permeable nature of memory with a stylistic boldness you don’t often find in today’s market. Ms Jarrett is truly one to watch.