An Arctic expedition gets stuck at sea with a pregnant woman hiding onboard in Irish author James’ hypnotic North American debut that’s less a high-stakes adventure than a slow-burning psychological study.
In 1850, a European crew sets off toward Arctic waters in search of Sir John Franklin’s recently lost Northwest Passage expedition. The dangers involved for Lt. Morgan and his crew are clear: the water could freeze around them; the boat could be crushed by the ice. They could get lost—there’d be no one to rescue them. When a broken rudder forces the crew to stop at an island off the coast of Greenland for repairs, Morgan finds himself involved with the local governor’s sister, Kitty, a woman trapped by the island and desperate to escape. Their courtship, if it can be called that, is a cold one, and when the rudder is fixed, Morgan has no intention of looking back. But once the ship is again at sea, one of the crew makes a discovery: Kitty has stowed herself away on the boat—and she’s pregnant with Morgan’s child. There's little feeling between them at first: for all practical purposes (save one), the two are strangers. But as Kitty’s pregnancy progresses and Morgan comes to terms with his impending fatherhood, he begins to see her—and himself—in a new light. James expertly captures both the terror and the overwhelming boredom of sea life, of being stuck in the ice, of having nothing to do but the monotonous and sometimes impossible task of staying alive. Cold and unmoving at the start, James’ characters—Morgan and Kitty, the ship’s doctor, the cook, the elderly captain, and all the rest—slowly become fully, tragically human.
Meditative and spare, this is not a fast read but one worth the effort: underneath all the ice, there is real emotional depth.