It has been a long time since I have been as wholly consumed by a book as I was by To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey when I read it earlier this year. It felt like kismet, to find a book so beautifully written, so wonderfully imagined and so, so perfectly tailored to my interests. I do not think you could have pried it out of my hands when I was reading it and yet I read so slowly, so carefully, not wanting to miss a detail and desperately wanting to prolong the experience.
The book tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife, Sophie. Newly married, the two are separated when Allen is charged with leading a small expedition into a wild, unmapped region of Alaska in the winter of 1885. Sophie, originally keen to join her husband on this great adventure, instead finds herself confined to the stultifying military barracks in Vancouver, Washington, pregnant with a long-for child.
Separated, the two keep diaries with an eye to sharing them once reunited. It is through these journals that we learn their story, supplemented by a few letters between them, the writings of other members of Allen’s expedition, and the contemporary correspondence between Walt Forrester, Allen’s great-nephew, and a young Alaskan museum curator to whom he is sending all the documents. Yes, it is my favourite of all literary techniques: the epistolary novel. And rarely have I seen it used to better effect.
Allen quickly finds himself in a completely foreign world as he journeys up the Wolverine River Valley with his men (the same setting used in Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child). Their expedition is poorly planned and badly provisioned so they are forced to rely on the help of those they encounter: a few white men but mostly native communities. And even as he finds himself stunned by the harsh magnificence of the places he travels through, Allen finds himself deeply unsettled by the stories he hears and the things he sees in this unbelievable land: beasts who turn into men, a woman eternally shrouded by fog, and a man who sleeps in trees, perched like a raven. As starvation and illness take hold, the wild world seems firmly in control and Allen and his men powerless to resist long enough to ever get home.
Sophie, meanwhile, faces a struggle of her own back in Vancouver, feeling alone without any news of her husband and ill-suited to the gossipy socialising of the other army wives. She retreats into herself and into her new hobby: photography. Already a keen naturalist, she finds herself trying to capture the living world even as, far away, her husband finds himself in daily conflict with it.
I hardly know where to start in my list of what makes this book so extraordinarily satisfying. Part of it is certainly that it is a tale of the North. There aren’t a lot of those anymore (I’m not sure there ever have been in American lit, though the North is a CanLit obsession) and there certainly aren’t many with this level of thoughtfulness or cultural detail. Ivey weaves in First Nation tales beautifully and even the eeriest among them are comfortingly familiar to the stories I’ve heard since childhood. Through these stories, she keeps reality suspended in the most magical way.
But without Sophie and Allen the book would just be a beautiful shell. They are its heart. They are both strong and intelligent people, capable of demanding our respect, but, having found one another, are touchingly vulnerable in their joy at having someone else to love so completely. The separation is a burden to them both, perhaps especially to Allen, who, having married late in life, is delighted by the thought of becoming a father but heartsick knowing he will not be returning before the birth. But Sophie is isolated in a way that Allen, facing daily peril, is not and her quieter, inner struggle is no less powerful.
Oh, writing this has made me remember how much I love this book. I want to read it all over again. It is an adventure story, a haunting suspense story, and a quiet, steadfast love story. It is, in short, everything you could want in a novel. I cannot recommend it highly enough and you can be certain it will appear on my list of favourite reads at the end of the year.