Copy courtesy of the publisher/The Reading Room.com
In 1897, S.A Andreé makes his second attempt to use a hot air balloon to reach the Arctic Circle. It is something that he has been working on for years, securing funding and putting together a team to go with him. One failed attempt to get the balloon off the ground didn’t deter him and the second is successful. Andreé takes along with him Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel. Nils leaves behind his fianceé Anna and his family in order to achieve greatness by being the first to reach the North Pole. It seems that almost everyone can see the foolishness of this attempt, the tragedy that it will no doubt result in, except those about to embark upon it.
Over 30 years later, a patch of abnormally warm weather melts the frozen island of Kvitøya, leading to the discovery of the frozen remains of the three explorers from 1897. Ambitious journalist Knut Stubbendorff is sent to the site to report for his paper and uncovers relics from the journey including the personal and professional diaries of the men involved in the balloon attempt. In one of the journals, he uncovers letters from Nils to Anna and finds himself intrigued about the couple he’s reading about. He wants to know more about them and why Nils would leave someone behind to head off on a journey that was so doomed from the beginning. He tracks down Nils’s family in order to find Anna so that he can pass the journal onto her and she can read her former fianceé’s last words to her.
But tracking down Anna proves to be harder than Stubbendorff anticipated. She lost contact with the Strindberg family long ago, not long after the voyage and hasn’t been seen for many years. It isn’t even known if she is still alive. Piecing together the history of Nils and Anna, as well as Nils’s older brother Eric, Stubbendorff uncovers a web of lost love, deceit, betrayal and a secret that has been kept for over twenty years.
I’ve read several stories about conquering (or attempting to) the South Pole but this is the first one I’ve read that revolves around an attempt to conquer the North Pole, something that northern European countries were quite interested in around this time. Several methods have been ruled out as a way to attempt it, given the weather and so S.A. Andreé looks into the idea of using a hydrogen balloon in order to make the trip. Although there are numerous concerns about this (ranging right up to ‘this is madness, you will all die’) once committed the team refuse to pull out or change their minds. Nils Strindberg is a young man from a good family in Stockholm, engaged to a young woman named Anna. Although Anna could’ve asked Nils not to go, begged him and he would’ve, she refused to do so and ruin something that he obviously wanted to do….even though she felt like most people, that it was a fool’s errand.
A large part of this novel hinges on the fact that Anna was not in love with Nils, although she did love and care for him. Instead she’s in love with his older brother Erik, whom she met first. When she met Erik, she found him slightly boorish and also thought that to pursue anything with him would hurt her sister, who had an interest in him (in so long as she wanted to marry well, into a wealthy family, and Erik was from one). Then Anna meets Nils and becomes friends with him and this seems to progress to a relationship. When she meets Erik again, it seems inconsistent with the way she felt about him the first time that she met him. Instead she seems to fall in love with him but I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps a lack of understanding of courtship in late 19th century Sweden but I don’t feel as though Anna’s feelings ever really made sense to me. Erik’s definitely did – he was drawn to Anna from the first time he saw her and very much wanted to pursue courting her but she rejected him, because, during the time together he bored her by talking about himself. It seems like a lot was made of the fact that Anna didn’t like Erik much or want to see him again and then the next time she sees him, it’s like he’s her long-lost love. She’s about to marry his brother and instead they engage in some sort of clandestine affair with secret meetings, touches and a few kisses (probably very risque for the time). Nils is blissfully ignorant and when he perishes, Anna is absolutely stricken with guilt.
The love triangle didn’t really work for me in terms of plausibility or making me care about the characters (except poor Nils, dying in a frozen wasteland) but I loved the writing and the portrayal of Swedish society. I’d have like more about the actual expedition itself than the brief snippets we got from the diaries that Stubbendorff finds. I think Nils’s motivation to go on the trek is a little weak too, especially when he had so much waiting for him at home and I also think the attempt at the end to reassure everything that he wasn’t in love with Anna and was just writing these beautiful words because he wasn’t coming back, was a bit trite. I think he did actually love Anna – far more than she loved him. Stubbendorff is an interesting character and his dedication to finding Anna and delivering the diaries to her gives this book a much needed lift. His conversations with the remaining Strindberg family members are lovely and the way he pieces everything together is admirable.
Book #312 of 2013
Perfect North is book #108 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013