Monday, June 13, 2016

My Last Continent

Title:  My Last Continent
Author:  Midge Raymond
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2016. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1501124706 / 978-1501124709

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "As I lead tourists from the Zodiacs up rocky trails to the penguin colonies, I notices how these visitors - stuffed into oversize, puffy red parkas - walk like the penguins themselves:  eyes to the snowy ground, arms out for balance."

Favorite Quote:  "In science, in the natural world, things make sense. Animals act on instinct - of course, they have emotions, personalities; they can be cheeky or manipulative or surprising - but, unlike humans, they don't cause intentional harm. Humans are a whole different story..."

"It seems like there are two kinds of people who come to Antarctica. Those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide." Which of these describes Deb Gardner for Antarctica is her last continent? It is where her journey as naturalist and penguin expert leads her year after year. For a few precious months, she is able to study the penguins and to educate people of the delicate environment of Antarctica and the impact humans are having on this environment.

Antarctica is also Keller Sullivan's last continent. He comes to Antarctica for entirely different reasons and falls in love - with the penguins, with the continent, and with Deb. Where will that lead him?

The first page of the book introduces the accident of the cruise ship Australis in which 715 passengers and crew died, including two rescuers. Australis is the Latin word meaning southern; it is also the name of an actual ship that did sink, although not in Antarctica. These two facts have no relevance to the story, but I find these bits of reality in my fiction intriguing.

The declaration about the disaster sets up the entire book. As a reader, you know it's coming. It looms over and underlies everything else in the story. The questions are about everything else. How? Who perishes? Who survives? How does it all turn out for the main characters? As a reader, I am hooked.

Then, the book goes back - to the week leading up to the shipwreck and to the preceding years developing the story of Deb and Keller and what brings them back to this place year after year. Weaving narratives sometimes don't work, leaving me thinking where I am in the story. In this case, however, it works. The back story of the characters makes me care about them, and the story forward makes me worry about their fate.

The book of course is a love story. It is about two solitary people who find solace in the peace and vastness of Antarctica, and who also find each other. It is about a relationship that strives to survive in extreme conditions and in a situation where two separate lives only come together for short periods of time. A crisis is approaching, and the question is will the relationship survive? Will the individuals survive? Given certain clues in the book, the ending is not really surprising. I expect it, but still I keep wondering that maybe it will turn out differently.

The book is also the story of a place and an environment. I have never been to Antarctica, nor am I likely to go. To me, the book captures what I imagine the grandeur of the continent to be. It is quiet, peaceful, pristine, majestic, and dangerous all together. The descriptions of the penguins add another picture to my mental image. There is an underlying message of the impact of humans on this environment and these beautiful creatures. The message too works without sounding preachy; it completely fits into the story and into Deb's character.

The book tells a visual story for the place and then penguins are themselves characters in this story. I cannot envision this story taking place anywhere but there. The penguins become metaphors for the human story also. The descriptions - the solitary penguin, the mating and nesting habits, the caring for family, the losses - all parallel the human story of the book. It makes both the human and the naturalist story more real.

All in all, a beautiful debut.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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