The typical approach of the modern debut novel is to grab its audience’s attention, to make a splash of the sort that gets its author noticed. This is how you get a book deal, this is how you quickly draw an audience — books like Fight Club, The Kite Runner, even Harry Potter each went out of their way to draw in an audience, either through a defined sense of language, a heightened sense of realism, or an instant wash of wonder. South Pole Station is Ashley Shelby’s debut, and its biggest success is its ability to take the opposite approach: rather than claw and scream for its reader’s attention, it’s content to seep into its reader’s consciousness, slowly drawing that reader into a world that’s simultaneously unfamiliar and totally believable.
As one might suspect, given its title, that world is the one at and around the South Pole. There are people down there, after all, and South Pole Station is a convincing look at one possible world that its inhabitants may have created.
Shelby has a bit of an insider’s point of view. As we find out in the acknowledgments, her sister spent some time at the South Pole, so while the novel is entirely fiction, there’s a sense that the tone and mood of the book is an accurate portrayal of the type of environment that the extreme isolation of the Pole can inspire. There are plenty of acronyms and nicknames — terms like “fingys”, “beakers”, and “nailheads” — meant to categorize people, putting them into boxes even as the shared experience and environment brings them together. There are factions that form, power struggles that take place, and a host of interesting humans whose only common trait tends to be a certain sort of damage that they can only begin to address by getting away from, well, everything else.
At the center of the story is Cooper Gosling, an artist ostensibly headed to the Pole for inspiration. As we quickly learn, she’s running both from and toward the sort of pain that’s difficult to put into words, a pain that she’s been struggling to deal with for essentially all her life. She arrives carrying a well-worn copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World and enough defense mechanisms to arm a small nation. While she goes through a fairly typical fish-out-of-water period as she struggles to adapt to this world of scientists and technicians, she soon becomes an effective conduit through which to see the workings at the station.
Indeed, Cooper’s story, which dominates South Pole Station, is affecting and realistic enough to keep the reader’s attention throughout. Her development as a character is easy to trace from a bird’s-eye view of the book, but it happens gradually and consistently enough to feel like the same person throughout. Despite changing in some very major ways, she very clearly resonates at both the beginning and the end as the same person. Her dry sense of humor remains a constant, as does her ability to see humanity in the most obvious of villains.
Where South Pole Station falls apart just a little bit is when other characters become the focus. There are chapters in which characters other than Cooper, characters we have already seen through Cooper’s eyes, get their own moments to shine as we learn a bit about their backstories. We see events unfolding through these characters that would shape what we see of them in the “present day” of the book (the early 2000s), there are things that happened in their past that we get hints of in the present, but might not understand without these vignettes. This is to say that the function of these chapters is fine, but the execution, at times, falters.
Shelby is so comfortable in the character of Cooper — assuredly a partly autobiographical character — that the change in voice is jarring when she writes as someone else. The brusque tough-guy-speak of lead nailhead Bozer is most jarring, as Shelby’s attempts at portraying a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a heart of gold come off as awkward and cliché. Her attempt at humanizing the resident contrarian, at the Pole to study intelligent design, is a little more effective but still extraneous. It’s the type of backstory that could have been summed up in a sentence. Rarely do these chapters come off as things we absolutely need to know; while rounding out her characters is a good goal, leaving these bits out would have made for a more concise and enjoyable read.
That said, South Pole Station doesn’t outstay its welcome. The narrative that eventually unfolds is engaging, and its ending could so easily have been trite, but Shelby manages to swerve into a satisfying conclusion. South Pole Station shows us that “getting away from it all” means different things to different people. It’s an unflinching yet loving look at family in all its forms. Perhaps most of all, it’s a reassurance that sometimes, grasping at straws is the only way to figure out how to get “better”, whatever “better” means. Give it time, and Shelby’s novel will find its way in, and when it does, you’ll wish you could spend more than just the one winter with its crew.