I shall open this review with the context of its blurb: ‘Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its rich natural resources to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy. Forrester leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Adventurous in spirit, Sophie does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband carves a path through the wilderness. What she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage and fortitude of her that it does of her husband.’
It pains me greatly to award an Eowyn Ivey book just two stars. I was absolutely blown away by her spellbinding debut, The Snow Child, and have recommended it to so many people over the last few years. There is something about it which just oozes originality, and I must admit that when I began her second book, To the Bright Edge of the World, I was expecting more of the same.
The book starts off nicely, with a beautifully illustrated map of Alaska. I must admit that I was not immediately enchanted with To the Bright Edge of the World, which has a lot of different qualities to it than I was expecting. Based on my adoration of the aforementioned, I decided to throw my usually strict Nancy Pearl-inspired rule of stopping at the fifty page mark out of the window and keep reading.
To the Bright Edge of the World is far more realistic in its tone. I am fine with realism. I like it. Yes, Ivey uses her Alaskan setting to full advantage, and yes, she does demonstrate how diverse she is an author when the inevitable comparisons are drawn. She still handles plots, scenes, and characters incredibly well. She writes with clarity. Her prose is measured and sometimes even exquisite: ‘and then we will arrive at the end of the map, and Allen will disappear over its edge. It is both exhilarating and terrifying, and I find I can think of nothing else’. The whole has been almost intricately pieced together; we are presented with a rich, full picture of what Alaska in the 1800s was like, both socially and geographically. Such emphasis has been given to the tiniest of details, showing just how perceptive Ivey is. When Sophia sees the flock of birds as a child, for instance, she writes in her diary: ‘That is the excitement. We catch only glimpses, a burst of movement, a flap of wings, yet it is life itself beating at a shadow’s edge. It is the unfolding of potential; all of what we might experience and see and learn awaits us’.
There are so many positives here. Why, then, did I not enjoy the book at all? Ultimately, I think my hopes were too high. My excitement had been building for Ivey’s next release as soon as I closed that final beautiful dark blue cover on my copy of The Snow Child. Ivey is still a thoughtful author here, and she presents another marriage-and-new-child situation, but something about it just did not come to life for me. The alternating narrative voices of Allen and Sophia were nowhere near diverse enough. It was only in the details that I could work out who was who; similar phrasing was utilised, and there was no real feminine dimension to Sophia’s voice – well, as long as one discounts the stereotypically weepy complaints she almost constantly makes, that is.
I am a sorely disappointed reader. I thought that every single Ivey novel would be humming with originality and beauty, but alas, that seems not to be the case. Had I not been told of the author of this novel, I would never guess that it came from the pen of a woman whom I would have been incredibly happy to include within the tight-knit group of my favourite contemporary authors. <i>To the Bright Edge of the World</i> ultimately reads like any other slightly unremarkable historical novel, in which the premise feels slightly better executed than the whole.