Eowyn Ivey is a master craftswoman and her sentences are smooth and flowing like treacle. Her debut the Snow Child was one of my favourite novels. It told the magical tale of a child that emerges out of the icy Alaskan tundra and provides an ageing couple yearning for a baby, with the promise of a living child.
For her second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World- Ivey returns again to her homeland for inspiration. It’s set in Alaska in 1885, a time of frontier exploration, prospecting and hardy homesteaders wanting to carve out an existence on the edge of the known world.
The book follows an unusual style of following the characters through correspondence such as journals, letters, reports and magazine articles. It makes the narrative compelling and often leads to teasing, unresolved clues that are later realised in the plot. We work through the documents in much the same way as a museum curator or local history enthusiast would in a remote village, on unveiling the contents of a dusty old steamer trunk.
The story centres around the frontier exploration by Colonel Allen Forrester and his team of rag-tag military men as they explore the lesser known parts of the Alaskan wilderness. Allen leaves behind his young wife Sophie in relative suburban safety and the humdrum world of women’s work in Vancouver. In the meantime Allen encounters all types of natural and supernatural phenomena in the wilderness. Everything from a shaman that shape-shifts into a raven, to a group of women who shape-shift into geece and a spruce tree that can birth into existence a human baby. It’s a fantastical journey but one that’s seen through the eyes of the pragmatic eyes of Col. Forrester who doesn’t stand for any of that hocus-pocus nonsense.
Throughout the book is the theme of transformative liminality and exploring the gap between waking and sleep, tame and wild, imagined and real. The book chugs along at an enjoyable pace and the writing is crisp, engaging and beautifully evocative of time and place.
As in the Snow Child, the Alaskan wilderness is the centrepiece and main character of this novel. And yet it doesn’t need to say a single solitary piece of dialogue to be fascinating and memorable. If anything, To the Bright Edge of the World has given me itchy feet to explore Alaska.
Ivey’s characters are flawed, scarred and made more real by their hurtful histories that haunt them. It’s a braided narrative between the present time of locals discovering the documents relating to the epic journey taken by Col. Forrester, and also the journey itself in 1885. A less gifted writer would struggle to bring the two narratives together, but Ivey manages to do this with ease and grace and the whole novel is a colourful epic that will become etched in your memory for years to come.