The Canadian Arctic is the setting for this elegiac and intricately patterned first novel, the work of an Ontario short-story writer (Country of Cold, 2003, etc.) and memoirist.
More specifically, it’s the settlement of Rankin Inlet on the northwestern coast of Hudson Bay—to which a beautiful Inuit woman named Victoria returns to rejoin her family in the late 1960s, after six years spent in a Montreal hospital being treated for tuberculosis. The world of the Inlet is rapidly, irreversibly changing. Seal and fish populations dwindle as industrialism alters the environment. Victoria’s father Emo, a renowned hunter and trapper, has accepted work in a mine, relocating his family to subsistence-level government housing. As years pass, Victoria, who has married British settler John Robertson (manager of the town store) and borne him three surviving children, yearns nostalgically for the years of her confinement when easily available books stimulated her imagination, and watches as her daughters (Justine and Marie) adjust differently to confusing cultural pressures, and her son Pauloosie “retreats” to the elemental world of previous generations. When outside business interests prepare to cultivate diamonds detected in the frozen tundra, Robertson betrays the interests of “his” people—and the unraveling of his marriage to Victoria (who has long since taken an Inuit lover) incarnates in microcosm the disintegration of the old, stable Inuit ways. Patterson displays a real gift for blending scenic description and ethnographic detail with narrative and characterization, and his crisp depictions of events experienced and remembered expand to include stunning images (“Pauloosie’s snow machine, twinkling its way north”) and ruminations on medical and personal matters recorded in the “journal” kept by Keith Balthazar, an American doctor who has come to Rankin Inlet to help the Inuits survive.
An all-but-vanished world is brought thrillingly to life, in one of the best debuts novels in recent memory.