The Ice by Laline Paull is a climate change thriller which takes place partly in the Arctic and partly in a courtroom in Canterbury. Sean and Tom met as students when Tom attended a meeting of the exclusive Lost Explorers’ Society and Sean was a waiter. They became friends because of their shared fascination for the Arctic. Both go on to forge careers revolving around the Arctic; Tom becomes an environmental campaigner, Sean a businessman. Their friendship, agreements and arguments are key to this novel. When, in chapter one, Tom’s body is revealed by an iceberg calving from a glacier it is the catalyst for all that follows.
Tom was known to be dead, having died in an accident in an ice cave on Svalbard three years earlier, an accident which Sean survived. An inquest is called, Sean’s business partners fly in to give evidence and to support Sean who is seeing visions of Tom around every corner. It becomes clear that Sean, now divorced and living with one of his investors, Martine, is not hands-on with his business in Svalbard. Midgard Lodge is an exclusive retreat where businessmen and politicians can meet to do deals. Sean’s upfront motivation is to encourage the capitalists to see the Arctic surrounding them, the polar bears, whales and glaciers, and convert them to environmentalism. With this in mind, he recruited Tom to the business. His partners however – the odious Joe Kingsmith and irritating Radiance Young – set my alarm bells ringing very early on. What exactly goes on at Midgard Lodge and why doesn’t Sean, supposedly the CEO, find out? And how could Tom not ask more questions before signing his contract?
There are some big topics touched on here: the opening of shipping channels over the North Pole, the political and military ramifications, the melting of the ice, the wealthy tourists who demand to see the polar bear they were promised in the holiday brochure, business executives who take the money and avoid asking difficult questions because that’s the easiest and most convenient thing to do. To reduce it to essentials, this is a novel about greed and love. How greed can destroy everything: not just business, but friendships, families and ultimately the ice.
I enjoyed The Ice but was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. A day after I finished reading it, I realized why: it feels like it started out as a thoughtful novel about climate change, but at a later draft was turned into a thriller. The environmental message seemed preachy at times, the business sections were factual and dry, both of which took the edge off the suspense. Told from Sean’s viewpoint, the lack of Tom’s voice for me made the novel weaker. Perhaps it would have been more thrilling if various viewpoints had been juggled so the lies, risks, double-crossing and betrayals happen in real time, rather than the past.
In 2015 Laline Paull’s first novel, The Bees, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction. Read more about Paull’s writing at her website.
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