Book Review: South Pole Station

Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?

These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is sufficiently resilient for Polar life.

Cooper’s not sure if this is an achievement, but she knows she has nothing to lose. Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, she’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica—where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. There’s Pearl, the Machiavellian cook with the Pollyanna attitude; Sal, an enigmatic astrophysicist whose experiment might change the world; and Tucker, the only uncloseted man on the continent, who, as station manager, casts a weary eye on all.

The only thing the Polies have in common is the conviction that they don’t belong anywhere else. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

A winning comedy of errors set in the world’s harshest place, Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station is a wry and witty debut novel about the courage it takes to band together, even as everything around you falls apart.

That synopsis needs a little tweaking, I think. For starters, I don’t think I’d describe South Pole Station as a “comedy of errors”. While there are funny moments, I don’t think of this book as a comedy at all. The characters are quirky and odd, but the setting and the stakes become increasingly serious as the plot moves forward, and the individuals portrayed here all seem to have buried hurts in their pasts that they’re trying to escape from or figure out. So no, not a comedy.

Putting that aside, let me start by saying that I truly enjoyed South Pole Station. I seem to be fascinated by people who willingly walk away from society with the intent of spending months at a time in isolation at the farthest reaches of the planet. I’ve read a few novels and one memoir related to time at the Pole, and can’t help being intrigued by the special mindset it takes to make a commitment of that sort.

In South Pole Station, Cooper is going to Pole because she can’t quite be anywhere else. Her family life is raw after a devastating loss, she has no support systems and little hope for her art career, and latches on the NSF Artists and Writers program as if it’s her only lifeline. She feels compelled to go, both to prove something to herself, to lay her ghosts to rest, and to find something meaningful to give her purpose again.

At the Pole, she meets the scientists (Beakers) and support workers (Nailheads) who call the place home, as well as the odd group of artists on the same grant — an interpretive dancer, a historical novelist, and a literary novelist, among others. They’ve all come seeking inspiration, but they’re also expected to pull their weight, going through fire training and all the other essentials for survival in such a stark and inhospitable place.

The bonds that form among the people at Pole are strong, as are the gripes and grudges that quickly emerge among a group of argumentative, strong-willed people forced to live in extremely close quarters for extended periods of time. The dynamics can be insanely fun, but veer quickly to the dark side when their group understandings are threatened — as is the case when Frank Pavano, a climate “denier” arrives to conduct research that’s antithetical to everything the Polies believe in. Pavano, as we discover, is sponsored by big oil and by Republican Congressmen on a mission, and he’s ostracized and opposed at every turn by the hardcore Beakers and even the Nailheads. When there’s a terrible accident, it becomes a national scandal as headlines scream about bullying and harassment and the exclusion of diversity of opinions.

Be warned — there are heavy doses of science talk in this book, and I’ll admit that some of the talk about cosmology and quantum physics made my head spin. At the same time, that’s one of the book’s charms — it doesn’t talk down to its readers, and assumes we’ll all manage to keep up.

The characters are well developed and full of personality, from Cooper the artist to Sal the scientist to Denise the anthropologist and Doc Carla, the station’s one and only medical staffer. It’s great fun to see these oddballs bounce off each other, entertain each other, fight with each other, and fall in love with each other.

While Cooper is our main point-of-view character, we do get sections focusing on other characters’ backstories and inner workings, and these parts add to the richness of the story and enhance our understanding of the characters’ actions and motivations.

All in all, I found South Pole Station to be a captivating look at a unique social dynamic, as well as a story of interesting characters in a highly unusual situation. Oh, and add in politics and scientific discoveries and artwork, and it’s one book that really doesn’t fit any of the usual fictional trends or tropes.

A final note on my reading experience: This just goes to show how much damage a badly formatted ARC can do! I know we shouldn’t let formatting issues influence our reviews, but I can’t help but be turned off by a book that’s impossible to read. The finished, published version of South Pole Station includes emails and letters and other documents that enhance the story, but in the ARC version, these weren’t set off from the main text in any way, making it incredibly difficult to understand what went where. I DNF’d the ARC, and basically walked away from the book at 15%. Luckily, I happened across a copy at the library a few months later and decided to give it another chance, and I’m so glad I did! It’s sad to think that based on my initial reading experience, I would never have read this terrific novel.

Summing up my rambles… I thought South Pole Station was great! I love the setting, and had a lot of fun getting to know the characters. I was drawn into the scientific competitions and the political maneuvering, and felt the ups and downs of Cooper’s emotional journey. So yes, that would be a big thumbs-up recommendation!

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The details:

Title: South Pole Station
Author: Ashley Shelby
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: July 4, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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