Always North by Vicki Jarrett

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Always North by Vicki Jarrett is a strange little beast, on the one hand I thought that the location and isolation that she brought to the book were astonishingly well written – you could feel the bleakness of it, the coldness of the arctic and at times when I was reading in bed, I’m sure I even noticed clouds of breath falling from my mouth. It’s a real study of the cold and isolation and this comes across very well – but on the other hand I felt a little short changed (more on that later).

As a reader I was immediately transported into this great hulking metal behemoth of a ship as it carved its way through the ice sheets on a scientific mission to find untapped fossil fuels in the frozen depths. The characters were brilliantly well rounded and the characterisations that Jarrett adds ensures they live long in the memory and that you are fully invested in the drama of the page – it at times was like a rogues gallery, every scoundrel that you could imagine was there; many with stories to tell from scars on their faces or years of weathered seafaring skin – it was like the cantina in Mos Eisley from Star Wars – crooks and people with ulterior motives lurking in every corner of this huge ship.

‘But here I can sense the world working. The raw machinery of it. I can’t avoid the feeling that this whole frozen region is a vital piece of the engine that drives the world along. Earth’s crankshaft. If we mess this up, we’re all fucked.’

Then when you think all is well, Jarrett throws in the stalking beast that is following them, a Polar Bear – the ships captain has a story to tell about this monster and the scars to prove he was there, and his story and the way Jarrett wrote it was masterful – she had me eating out of the palm of her hand, until it was a bloodied stump – it was visceral and controlled storytelling at its best. And in bringing this story into her story, it drums up the tension and the dread as you turn the pages and see the beast stalking and lurking in the periphery with a taste for fear.

It’s a strange book, it feels to be one genre then superbly switches to another, almost as if its been mutated by a radiation leak – one moment it has elements of an adventure story, next it becomes eco-horror, then shifts into a post-apocalyptic disaster book – but each of these elements are unique and don’t seem forced in the slightest, it just seems the natural progression of Jarrett’s story and of the characters.

This switching up of genre, although I mention it being a natural progression for this novel, did leave me wanting. I guess the first quarter of the book is so well written, the isolation, the characters, the ice, the dread, the fear and menace – that I became quite invested in that part of Jarrett’s story (I didn’t want to leave – so the sudden change seemed like I’d be forced to leave). So, when the book takes a time jump and a switch up of genre and conventions, it took me a long while to get back into the storytelling, as I desperately wanted to carry on reading about the arctic mission and the events that had transpired just before the time jump – but rest assured we do come back to that, but it just didn’t feel the same after spending so much time away from the action.

So, I found Always North bittersweet – I enjoyed it, but I felt it could have offered more, and been a book of the year if it had stuck with the isolation and story that Jarrett had masterfully evoked in the opening quarter of the book – for me with the time jump and genre switch, she seemed to lose all that atmospheric work she’d quite clearly spent a great deal of time creating and writing. But having said that Vicki Jarrett is a tremendous writer, so I’d highly recommend Always North if you’d like a slice of something different from the norm, from a writer who is subverting genre expectations – she’s a writer to keep tabs on… trust me.

Always North is published by Unsung Stories and is available here.

Vicki Jarrett

I’m a novelist and short story writer and live and work in my native Edinburgh, dividing my time between writing and teaching English and creative writing. Nothing is Heavy, my first novel, was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award in 2013. My collection of short stories, The Way Out, was published by Freight Books and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015, and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016. A new novel, Always North, is coming out with Unsung Stories in autumn 2019.

Where my first novel and short story collection are mostly set in contemporary urban environments, Always North ventures into speculative science fiction territory. I’m interested in how ordinary people survive and attempt to make sense of their lives in today’s complex world. Despite the serious nature of the questions I seek to explore, there is often a vein of humour throughout my writing.

I have appeared at events and festivals regularly since 2012 and am available for readings, workshops, residencies and chairing events. I am happy to work with teens or adults, either readers or developing writers.

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