books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

“South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby

     “‘What if I promise to just be your typical aimless thirty-year-old looking to delay the inevitable slide into mediocrity?’
     ‘That rolls off your tongue easily.’
     ‘Yeah, well, I’ve said it before.’
     Cooper thought she detected a slight smile somewhere on Tucker’s face, but he didn’t let it crack open.
     ‘Then you will fit in very well,’ he said. ‘But can you, just for paperwork’s sake, give me one line that I can write down on this form? One line about why you want to go to South Pole?’
     ‘I put that on my application.’
     ‘That thing about “new horizons” and “fresh perspectives”?’
     Cooper sighed. ‘How about to further my creative journey?’
     ‘For adventure’s sake?’
     ‘There is no adventure, only a grind.’
     ‘I like cold climates?’
     ‘Stay in Minnesota.’
     ‘I want to be somewhere else.’
     ‘You’re getting closer.’
     ‘But if I say that, you’ll think I’m running from something,’ Cooper said.
     ‘It’s not “running from something.” It’s turning aside.’ Tucker thought for a moment. ‘Or looking askance. Looking askance at civilization. If you apply to go to Pole because it seems “cool” or because you’re looking for “adventure,” then you’ll crack up when you realize it’s not a frat party. If you don’t fit in anywhere else, you will work your ass off for us. This has been proven time and time again.'”

IMG_0561On July 3, 2017 Ashley Shelby’s debut novel “South Pole Station” will arrive as, I predict, a celebrated – and ironically sited – summer read. “South Pole Station” is a sparkling story of a group of people who only feel at home in one of Earth’s most inhospitable locales. These misfits – scientists, artists, and dedicated supporters – brave six months of darkness, intolerable cold, and mind-altering isolation to form a microcosmic world all their own, where dedication and passions rule the days and months-long nights.

“There were three widely accepted behavioral predictors that distinguished a successful polar applicant: emotional stability, industriousness, and sociability. But these traits had to be finely balanced against the necessary component of ‘crazy’ required of a person who would choose to spend months upon months in Antarctica. Furthermore, that person had to be interesting enough for others to want to spend large amounts of time with, but not too ‘interesting.’ Over the years, Tucker had learned that some social skills were more highly valued at Pole than others: intimate familiarity with Settlers of Catan, detailed knowledge of nonconformist zombie-apocalypse scenarios, and the willingness to grow facial hair competitively, to name a few.”

Cooper Gosling grew up with South Pole as her Oz, her Hogwarts, her paradise. Cooper’s father used the stories and memoirs of Antarctic travel as childhood bedtime stories, and playing the parts of Scott’s exploration team marked Cooper’s and her twin brother’s favorite fantasy.

“‘My father’s a frustrated explorer, so I’m on a first-name basis with a lot of dead men.’
‘Yes, there’s a whole generation of those kinds of fathers, isn’t there? Men cut out of Shackleton’s adventures but forced to work as accountants or teachers.'”

As an adult artist, still reeling from her brother’s recent suicide and her sense that the Earth has tilted on its axis, Cooper applies to and is accepted for a grant from the National Science Foundation to live a year at South Pole Station. Cooper finds her way into the closed society and hearts of this rag-tag crew, a group of some 100 individuals committed to pushing life to the limits and inhabiting the world’s least inviting places.

“‘[F]or me, South Pole is like my fantasy bathroom-cottage. You can pretend you have everything you need here. People might pull on the doorknob and threaten to kick the door down, but you know they won’t do it, and you can be safe here until you’re ready to face whatever ends up being on the other side of it. I like it here because this isn’t the world. It’s somewhere else.'”

What follows is a rollicking exploration, sometimes a “comedy of errors”, sometimes pure heartache and agony. There are a few awkward editorial decisions and changes in tone that could be balanced better- particularly when Shelby takes on a different character’s perspective or point of view. In these instances, though the words and tone are meant to be reflective of the new narrator, they are not always well-blended into the rest of the narrative. The effort is respectable and bold, however, and may simply be evidence of a young writer finding her voice. These moments, for me, were minor stumbles that were quickly overcome by the pure charm and wit of the story as a whole.

Shelby’s characters are lovable misanthropes, sexy scientists, and charming misfits of all shapes and sizes. Their passions – for their work and for one another – are compelling and heartwarming amidst a brutal, chilling landscape. “South Pole Station” is light-filled and intensely dark in equal measure. It is summer reading at its best – irresistible characters, a spellbinding plot, and a setting that is as exotic as it gets.

Thank you to Picador for providing a complimentary advanced copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “South Pole Station” will be published in the US on July 3, 2017.

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