At its heart a love story punctuated by devastating loss, Sackville’s gorgeous debut is attuned to rhythms and currents of love, sex, illness and death
in which the connections among the characters are propelled by courage and bravery. In a story as deep and vast as the dark blue waters of the Arctic, the author dramatically recounts the voyage of
the ill-fated Persephone expedition of 1899, led by the young, dashing explorer Edward Mackley.
The expedition was at last revealed to be a valiant failure. Emily, Edward's wife, sits at home, waiting sixty years for news of her gallant husband. Emily's love for Edward burns as bright as his ambition,
and she’s blithely unaware that her lover’s body lies trapped in a soaking, freezing shroud, his body preserved while the sound of the ice breaks all around him on an island that first saved and then trapped him.
The Persephone aches and groans, the ice forcing itself upon her with a “giant’s roar,”
as Julia, Edward’s descendent, turns her “archivist’s ear” to the explorer’s last days, honing myths long since fixed and frozen. Sorting through the fragments of her inheritance in an effort to assemble them into Edward’s legacy, Julia sits in the dusty attic of her Victorian family house full of books, prints and paintings, along with inherited relics and dead things from a century before.
While her husband, Simon, goes off to the daily grind of his job in London, she spends the day among her "freighted memories," turning to her great uncle Edward, haunted by images of him struggling through the snow as one by one he begins to lose his men. Waking through dreams and headaches, Julia also tries to wash away the vague sense of unease she has about Simon even as she spends this one, vital day attempting to save her fragile marriage.
It’s only natural that Julia would turn to the comforting rooms of her childhood and to the stories passed down by her Aunt Helen, who had in turn learned them from Emily, the unremitting and waiting widow. This is the legacy Julia owes a debt to: the celebrated figure in the snow and the woman left behind who shaped the legend while waiting for her dark, dashing adventurer to return.
From the endless blue skies of England to the unrestrained depths of the Arctic ocean, Sackville delivers a virtuoso novel.
The heave and clamber of Simon’s butterfly collection is as powerful as Mackley's icy terrain, where light is fractured and the stars are eternally ice white. Mackley and his team's doomed endeavor is portrayed in provocative and graphic detail, the inherent desolation of man against nature balanced against the
collateral damage of those left to shoulder the burdens of grief.
The past mixes with the present, and Simon becomes Edward’s contemporary rival, seemingly "frozen in his prime." Julia’s intimate imaginings tie her to Emily's romantic farewell, which is joined to Edward's passionate promises of return. While
the flame of Emily's love burns long into the night, Edward's voice - "I will reach it, and I will come back to you"
- is a constant echo in her mind as Sackville combines his courageous journey with Emily's missives of lost and broken love.