Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester accepts the mission of a lifetime, to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. It is a journey that promises to open up a land shrouded in mystery, but there’s no telling what awaits Allen and his small band of men.
Allen leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Sophie would have loved nothing more than to carve a path through the wilderness alongside Allen – what she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage of her that it does of her husband.
Having adored Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child, I eagerly purchased her second novel, To The Bright Edge of the World on its release in 2016. I was even lucky enough to hear Eowyn herself talk about the novel at a wonderful Booka Bookshop event – and came away eager to read it straight away. So, why then, am I writing this review in 2021?
If there is such a thing as ‘book-fear’, I think I might have had it over this book! Every time I picked it up, the worry that I might not enjoy it quite as much as The Snow Child meant that I rarely got past the first couple of chapters. Having now read the whole novel, I think this might be because To The Bright Edge of the World has a much more measured opening. Indeed, by being told almost entirely through letters and diary entries, it is arguably a much more measured novel and lacks the instant immediacy of its predecessor.
But having finally plucked up my courage (much like Allen and Sophie both do), I can attest that not only is Bright Edge as breathtakingly magical as Ivey’s popular debut, I think the richness and depth of the story may mean it has supplanted The Snow Child to become my favourite of her books so far.
To The Bright Edge of the World follows two strands. The first is that of Colonel Allen Forrester who, at the start of the novel, is about to set off from Perkins Island on an expedition to map the treacherous Wolverine River. The journey that will take him and his men into the unexplored heartlands of Alaska – a place where the local indigenous populations say that the world of men and the world of the spirits collide. The second strand follows Allen’s pregnant young wife Sophie, awaiting her husband’s return at Vancouver Barracks. Finding herself ill-suited to endless rounds of afternoon tea, Sophie finds herself drawn to the developing science of photography and eventually finds herself combining this with her long-held fascination with the flora and fauna that surrounds her.
As the novel progresses, these two seemingly disparate narratives combine to form a tender story of endurance, love, loss and discovery. Although I don’t want to give any spoilers, I would caution that there is some gruesomeness amidst the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness so trigger warnings for minor character death, period-appropriate attitudes towards the role of women and towards indigenous populations, and depictions/discussion of birth and miscarriage. There’s nothing especially gory – and no attitudes that would not have been all too common for the period – but it is clear that Ivey has done her research and, although the novel wears this lightly, it does lead to some uncomfortable and emotive moments.
It is difficult to talk about the pull of this book because, as I indicated at the start of this review, it is in many ways a very meditative and quiet book. Told almost entirely through documents, the reader is often one step removed from the characters, particularly at the start of the novel. But as Allen and Sophie’s stories progress – and they begin relying more and more upon their respective diaries to recount their feelings about what they are undergoing – I found myself pulled in to their worlds as surely as Allen finds himself drawn onwards down the Wolverine River’s swift but uncertain course.
By the end of the novel, I was utterly spellbound. Ivey writes so captivatingly about the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, and manages so deftly to make Allen, Sophie and their companions come alive on the page. From the impish and flirtatious Miss Evelyn to the young native chief Ceeth Hwya and the sinister, possibly supernatural, Man Who Flies , I could picture every single character in my mind and longed to be beside them, exploring the natural beauty of Alaska’s canyons or experiencing the pleasure of watching a hummingbird care for a clutch of eggs.
To The Bright Edge of the World will not, I expect, be a novel for everyone. There is a still meditativeness to it that forces you to read it slowly – to savour each description and incident, and to contemplate each tantalisingly drawn out connection or inference. It is an enthralling yet touching novel that ruminates deeply upon love and the nature of love, as well as the connections we make with those around us and the impact we have upon the lives of those we come into contact with.
But if your measure of a good novel is that it should be an extension of the human spirit – that it should endeavour to encapsulate both the intense pleasures and raw pains of our experiences – then To The Bright Edge of the World should be very high up on your ‘To Read’ list indeed.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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