Published: 2012 by Mantle
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “Surely, I thought, if my father could travel through the tropics and into the Arctic Circle, if my neighbour could reach the Antarctic and walk on ice, if Frank Black was going to Oxford, Catherine and I could at least get out of Dulwich,.”
Behold! A piece of polar (or polar-related) fiction in which nobody goes to the Pole! I have been pondering for some time the possibilities of a work in which this happens – or, more specifically, doesn’t happen. So much of what fascinates about polar narratives is the sense of obsession, the siren call of the Ice and the challenges of the unknown. Does this call necessarily need to be heeded to be of interest? I’ve always suspected not, and Jones’ psychological chiller of a novel confirms this. Shackleton and Scott and the journeys they make are important presences in When Nights Were Cold, but they are largely imaginative presences. This is a tale about the chasm between dreams of adventure and the circumscribed boundaries of daily life, especially those considerable restrictions faced by women in the early years of the twentieth-century. With its supremely – fascinatingly – unreliable narrator, it is also a tale about the often dangerously concealed crevasses that lie between imagination and reality.
But now a disclaimer, it weren’t for the icy subject matter I probably wouldn’t have picked up this novel at all. I’ve read two of Jones’ previous works, The Earthquake Bird and Water Lily and while in both cases I enjoyed her well-crafted characters and suspenseful plotting, I ultimately found myself frustrated by her endings, which felt disappointingly rushed – almost as if she’d run out of steam and, despite all the subtlety and tension of what had come before, now just wanted to get it over. With Water Lily, particularly, I went from being unable to put it down to almost throwing it across the room in annoyance. Fellow blogger, Lady Fancifull, has written about feeling similarly cheated by Jones’ endings: check out her great review of The Earthquake Bird here. She’s also read When Nights Were Cold and warned me that it didn’t meet her 4 star review criteria, so I wasn’t holding out too much hope when I picked up this one, but as a polar fiction completest I had to come to my own conclusions.
When Nights Were Cold tells the story of Grace Farringdon, an awkward young woman who follows the news of Shackleton and Scott’s expeditions with interest, yearning for adventures of her own. But the claustrophobic confines of Grace’s family home stand in sharp contrast to her fantasies of travel and it is only through considerable determination and dissembling that she is able to gain a place at Cadlin Women’s College. There she forms the Antarctic Exploration Society, to follow, discuss and roleplay the journeys of her polar heroes and later to undertake adventures of their own. The Antarctic may be out of reach for them, but Jones’ women seek challenging landscapes nearer to home, mountain climbing first in Wales and later in the Alps. The society brings together four very different types of women: the meek future doctor’s wife; the outspoken daughter of an actress; a haughty independent orphan, and Grace herself. Against these vividly realised and distinctive characters Grace is an enigma: although she is our narrator her reminisces slip treacherously between present and past, fact and fiction, creating a tone of increasing unease. “Last night I tried to climb the Matterhorn again,”the novel’s opening line recalls Rebecca: immediately invoking Du Maurier’s famous atmosphere of mystery and menace. It is clear that some tragedy occurred in the Alps, but precisely what happened and just how far Grace is responsible is a knot that Jones allows us only gradually to untangle.
Unreliable narrators fascinate me, so I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Grace who manages to evoke a striking mix of revulsion and sympathy. The novel also vividly depicts the limited but hard won freedom of life in an Edwardian woman’s college, as well the passionate female sentiment on both sides of the suffragette movement. But the scenes of adventure – both real and imagined – are what really captivate. Just as we know the Terra Nova expedition that Grace so avidly follows will end in tragedy, so the hints of unknown disaster throughout the narrative ensure that each Alpine scene is tautly gripping. Jones also draws heavily on the lives of real Edwardian lady mountaineers; women who endured not only the physical hardship of the ascent but social stigma of their daring to climb at all.
My overall verdict? This was an interesting read in so many ways, as but as with other books I’ve tackled by this author, the promise far outweighed its final delivery. Although it felt less rushed than that of Water Lily, the ending was still a bitter disappointment. Jones does seem to be a writer who can take her readers on enthralling journeys but to rather lacklustre destinations. There is a point at which Grace discovers that the lure of the summit is more powerful and impressive than its actual achievement: it’s a fascinating lesson, but one that is reflected perhaps rather too sharply in the structure of this and the other Susanna Jones novels I’ve read. All the same, I believe this particular book is still a trip well worth taking, for the the thrill of the ride and for the many ideas it encompasses.