At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer’s day, Edward’s great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily’s romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances – geographical and emotional – that can exist between two people.
While the characters of Orkney still remain strong in my mind, I feel that I’ve already lost much of the characters in The Still Point. This may not seem like much of a complaint, but when a book relies so heavily on the inner self and the narrator’s discussion of a character’s life, it stands out, especially considering that I read Orkney in August and this book only a couple of weeks ago.
I particularly loved the 19th century sections of the novel, which are brilliantly described and heart wrenching. The voyage and expedition of Edward Mackley, set in the stark environment of the Arctic, was brilliant. Emily’s life of waiting was devastating, her sad and lonely spinsterhood was an awful end to her love of a man who needed to achieve greatness more than stay with his love.
The modern couple, Julia and Simon, were hardly even worth bothering with in comparison. Simon’s difficult decision was barely even rendered difficult, since apart from one temptation, he turned his back on it rather easily. However, the last 100 pages or so was taken up by a lot of their interactions, and it was almost impossible to put down. Julia’s simplicity and naivety was polar opposite to Simon’s matter of fact existence, and I really liked and I connected with neither of them.
What I enjoyed about the novel was the Mrs Dalloway-esque narrator and style. The narrator’s constant interjections was very Woolfian, and made me laugh a fair few times. Some may say that Sackville was too reliant on classic authors, but I tend to disagree- copying an aspect of style is natural, and she doesn’t use it as much as a crutch, but as a literary nod to readers who may recognise the source. There’s Woolf, Eliot, and maybe a bit of the Forster vibe in the discussion of society.
Sackville’s strength is definitely in the creation and description of place, making her settings almost tangible. Even in the height of a stinking hot 45C day in Sydney, sitting on a ferry on the harbour, I could perfectly feel myself in the sub-Arctic regions, and fittingly, on a boat.
At dawn and dusk, a daily cycle, it rolled and piled in extraordinary forms all about them; the men on deck saw mountains, monsters and beasts rise and topple, abstract complex geometrics, gigantic crystals glinting off every surface and smashing slowly into glittering facets. And everything suffused with the sunlight that left its colours lingering, flaming brilliant gold against the cobalt sky before fading to pearlescence, the shadows hollowed out a deep lucent blue…
I enjoyed this novel a great deal, but it paled in comparison with Orkney, which seems to be the opposite opinion from a lot of other reviewers. Since this is her first novel, it’s understandably somewhat flawed, but if I wasn’t comparing it to her second novel, I’d have adored the hell out of this. I still thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys descriptive, well characterised novels, with only a smidge of action.