I don’t always remember exactly when I bought most of the books in my collection but that’s not the case with When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones. The cover caught my eye as I ambled my way out of Waterstones in Piccadilly after an evening with Ben Aaronovitch when I got my copy of his book signed. Didn’t know anything about the novel but after reading the inner cover flap (is that what its called?) I was keen to read it. And it’s only taken some seven months to do so, which isn’t bad for me (I have unread books that are decades in the waiting – yes Stanley Weintraub’s Queen Victoria, I am looking at you).
So , this is the story of Grace Farringdon and her (not giving much away here) rather dysfunctional family and obsession with Antarctic exploration. Which would be interesting at any time but Grace is an Edwardian woman, so the idea of trotting off to the Antarctic (actually, the idea of doing anything other than getting married or, if that can’t be arranged, staying at home to look after her parents) is ludicrous to almost everyone. But with the help of a relative she manages to get off to college against her parents’ wishes where she meets Cicely Parr, Leonora Locke and Winifred Hooper, and all four of them form the Antarctic Exploration Society. Parr (they all address each other by their surnames) is already a reasonably experienced mountaineer and that’s the interest they all take up, eventually climbing without a guide in the Alps. This is where the tragedy that defines them all, but Grace in particular, takes place.
This is all told in the first person many years later (on the cusp of WWII), so of course the tale unwinds slowly as Grace, now a recluse after being hounded by the press, unpicks her memories and tries to tell her story. And of course there is a final revelation which doesn’t really come across as much of a surprise if you have been paying attention.
I don’t mind first person narration as long as I don’t think about it too much (and its interesting that as I was reading this Jenny posted on similar issues); and I enjoyed this novel very much, although the ending would have made more sense in a more traditional narrative I think. I also think it’s a shame that the blurb and cover quotes give the impression that this is a thriller with “unexplained menace”. Instead, I thought this was a psychological study of a woman who had been thwarted in life, surrounded by tragedy and trying to explain herself, though clearly her view of events us unreliable at best. I thought in many respects that it was all rather sad, in a slightly Gothic way.
Sufficiently compelling that I sat up until the early hours of the morning to finish it. Well worth a look.