Nothing on the tundra rotted . . . The whole history of human settlement lay exposed there, under that big northern sky. There was nowhere here for bones to hide. On Craig Island, a vast landscape of ice north of the Arctic Circle, three travellers are hunting duck. Among them is expert Inuit hunter and guide, Edie Kiglatuk; a woman born of this harsh, beautiful terrain. The two men are tourists, experiencing Arctic life in the raw, but when one of the men is shot dead in mysterious circumstances, the local Council of Elders in the tiny settlement of Autisaq is keen to dismiss it as an accident. Then two adventurers arrive in Autisaq hoping to search for the remains of the legendary Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax. The men hire Edie – whose ancestor Welatok guided Fairfax – along with Edie’s stepson Joe, and two parties set off in different directions. Four days later, Joe returns to Autisaq frostbitten, hypothermic and disoriented, to report his man missing. And when things take an even darker turn, Edie finds herself heartbroken, and facing the greatest challenge of her life . . .
Set in the icy wastes of a small Inuit community in the High Arctic on Ellsemere Island and the fictional Craig Island this is a tale of the harsh realities of survival and murder. The story centres on a community facing the common woes of an indigenous people subjected to their dependence on a larger sovereign state, in this case, Canada, and highlights the social problems of drink and drug dependency that these and similar indigenous communities across the globe suffer. This, for me, was probably the most interesting aspect of the book as McGrath documents the day-to-day lives of these inhabitants referring often to the minutiae of their daily routines, language and life within this unrelenting environment, drawing on her established reputation as a non-fiction writer. The depiction of the landscape and the sheer grind of existence living with these climatic conditions was captured perfectly throughout and it did amuse me somewhat that a character refers to one day with a temperature of -25 as ‘balmy’! So these aspects of the book should have created a perfect backdrop for a gripping tale of murder in the Arctic wastes…
However, the main plot line was a disjointed and slightly unbalanced affair focusing on the character of Edie Kiglatuk, a part-time teacher and guide, and opening with the murder of a tourist she is accompanying on a visit to the island. As the town council are keen to sweep this incident under the carpet and the body count continues to grow, including one of Edie’s nearest and dearest, Edie finds herself drawn into a dangerous conspiracy concerning the tapping of natural resources in the Arctic region by an unscrupulous business organisation. This leads Edie to a seemingly suicidal mission to mainland Greenland to uncover and expose this conspiracy putting herself and those within her community at great danger. To be honest I found the plot a bit turgid with the central conspiracy not really gripping me in the way that I think it should, and I felt that at times some fiercer editing was needed with some passages meandering on losing this reader’s interest. In terms of characterisation, aside from Edie who was a well-drawn and empathetic character, the other protagonists were less effective particularly the male characters, and I think that maybe McGrath focused to much on the factual construct of the book leaving gaps elsewhere, which would hinder the engagement of the reader with the overall story line. I think this is something that McGrath overcomes in the follow up book The Boy In The Snow, but for me, despite the strength of the historical, political and cultural aspects of ‘White Heat, I was a little disappointed with this debut.
Visit the author’s website: http://www.melaniemcgrath.com/
Read Petrona’s review here: White Heat by M J McGrath.
Read a review at It’s A Crime here: White Heat – M J McGrath.
(With thanks to Macmillan for the advance reading copy)