‘The still point of the turning world’ (in the words of T.S. Eliot, quoted in this novel’s epigraph) is the North Pole, to where Edward Mackley led a fateful expedition at the turn of the 20th century – his body was not found for another fifty years. In the present day, Julia, a descendant of Mackley’s, lives in the explorer’s old house with her husband Simon, where she tries to find meaning in life even as her marriage slowly loses its spark. By novel’s end, Julia will find herself re-evaluating both her own relationship and what she thought she knew about Mackley and his wife, Emily.

Amy Sackville’s debut has to be one of the most intensely focused novels I’ve read in quite some time. The action in the book’s present takes place over the course of one day (though there also passages set in Edward Mackley’s time, and flashbacks to earlier in Julia’s and Simon’s relationship), and is almost entirely about the relationships of the two couples. Sackville sets up thematic parallels between the two, using the North Pole as a metaphor; the central idea seems to be that the nature of Arctic geography is such that you can never be sure when you’ve actually reached the Pole, just as perhaps you can never truly be sure that you’ve got to the heart of the person you love.

The parallels between the couples are interesting and, in a way, rather challenging. Ostensibly, they’re quite straightforward – both Julia and Emily are free spirits who ended up with a domestic existence while their husbands go out to work, and both have reason to wonder, ‘Is he coming back?’ Think about it more deeply, though, and the comparison starts to seem absurd: there’s a world of difference between trekking to the North Pole and commuting to London for the day, and between waiting decades for news of your husband – who, you’re well aware, might have died – and waiting a few hours to discover whether he’s returning home to you after work, or seeing someone else.

And yet… I think Sackville is challenging us to consider such deeper parallels. It seems clear that Julia sees something of herself in Emily’s situation, and undoubtedly both women have been ‘left behind’, albeit it in different senses. I suppose one could turn the question around and ask what there is of Julia’s situation in Emily’s, which raises the issue of the human consequences of attempting great feats – if someone is left behind at home, does it really make a difference why that was, if they have to deal with the same emotions? The Still Point certainly leaves one with plenty to think about.

Sackville’s prose style is interesting, often addressing the reader directly:

Closer inspection of [the couple’s] eyeelids will reveal that [Julia] is dreaming. Behind the skin you wil just discern, in the violet dimness, the raised circles of her pupils scud and jitter as the eyes roll in their sockets. You would like to know the hidden colour of the irises. Very well, then: hers are brown, his are also brown, but darker. [7]

I wasn’t sure for some time whether I’d get along with it, but now I think it suits the novel well; it gives the sense of eavesdropping on the characters rather than inhabiting them, which seems appropriate for a book about how it’s a struggle fully to get to know people. This style also leads to some striking effects: for example, there’s a scene where Julia and Simon argue, and the clash of their argument with the more poetic writing around it is quite something. Then there are the places where Sackville just writes beautifully, as with many of her descriptions of the Arctic:

Blank, white, vast and silent but for the slish of the summer ice. It is not the heave and roar of the darker months, but a constant drip, the rush of a hundred rivulets. A slick sheen over everything as if coated in glass. There are no shadows here, beneath the Arctic sun. There is no sense of depth, only massive solid forms without contour and, between, the black sea. The sky is almost white. Don’t look up, or let your gaze rest anywhere for too long. The sun is everything; try to keep your eyes half closed, the brightness will blind you. [153]

The Still Point is a book which has stayed with me; perhaps it wasn’t until I’d finished it that I realised just how much I’d been drawn into its world. I’m glad that I was.

Portobello Books