To the Bright Edge of the World | Eowyn Ivey | 2016, Pb 2017 | Tinder Press | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska. Recently relinquished by Russia, Alaska is now open for prospectors, the military, traders, hunters and the curious. Its resources are believed bountiful, its wildlife as beautiful as it can be dangerous, its Indians as useful as they are feared. Its majestic rivers are Alaska’s natural highways but they are only ice-free for brief months each year. The Wolverine River links the coast with a well-used river way to the north. Its exploration and mapping could prove key for the future settlement of Alaska. Allen Forrester and his men aim to be upon it as soon as it is released from winter’s grip and then they will travel for 1,000 miles, recording what they see, photographing it, trading with the Indians, introducing themselves, forging friendships. Trying to stay alive.
Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them.
At the heart of To the Bright Edge of the World are the experiences of Allen and Sophie, told through their journals, alternating between them, covering the great distance between them. There are photographs, sketches, as both Allen and Sophie experience the world around them, from the great glaciers of Alaska to fish, birds, animal tracks and people. But there is also another strand weaving in and out of this novel. In the present day, the latest member of the Forrester family is trying to find a home for Allen and Sophie’s journals and artefacts in a museum by the side of the Wolverine River and this element is absolutely fascinating.
This is not an easy novel to review, largely because I don’t have a hope of doing it justice. To the Bright Edge of the World held me mesmerised. I could not get enough of it, barely putting it down, as I read it in just one day and what a day’s reading it was. I knew this book would be good. I adored The Snow Child, it continues to be one of my very favourite novels, and I knew that Eowyn Ivey’s writing, imagination and deep, penetrating insight into, and empathy with, her own Alaska could not fail. However, I was not expecting To the Bright Edge of the World to exceed The Snow Child but that is exactly what it does.
The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera. It is dangerous but it is also so beautiful. The indigenous tribes are shown to have a much closer connection to the environment they live in, which is hardly surprising, but both Sophie and Allen, as well as the people that Allen travels with, each makes their own meaningful relationships with the world around them and that changes how they interact with the men and women they spend time with.
This creates a haunting, atmospheric setting for this wonderful novel that is matched by the grandeur or simple beauty of its locations, the impact of its changing seasons, its merging of nature with mystery and magic, the contrast of masculine and feminine, fertility and decay, the mix of science with indigenous wisdom, where anything is possible, not only in the natural world but also within the minds of Sophie and Allen, as well as our contemporary protagonists who treasure the legacy of this husband and wife who lived so many years ago.
With no hesitation at all I state that if I read another novel this year that I love as much as this I will be entirely surprised. This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.