In Midge Raymond’s new novel, “My Last Continent,” a love affair plays out on and around an expedition ship in Antarctica. Raymond reads Thursday, June 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
It’s both the strength and weakness of Midge Raymond’s debut novel, “My Last Continent” (Scribner, 308 pp., $26), that you read it picturing the movie it could all too easily become. Taking place on and around an expedition ship in present-day Antarctica (and elsewhere in some lengthy flashbacks), it’s the story of Deb, a penguin researcher in love with her work and with her colleague Keller, with whom she has a lengthy and stormy romantic history. Their relationship appears to be building toward a point of transformation — until a sinking cruise ship nearby changes everything.
Though the disaster doesn’t strike until quite late in the book, I’m not spoiling anything by revealing it: By page 5 we’re told that it’s “one week before shipwreck,” and the impending event looms over the narrative like an ocean liner behind a rowboat. Told entirely from Deb’s first-person point of view, the novel jumps around in time, taking us back to key moments in Deb and Keller’s relationship, and even to Deb’s college days. By the time the disaster finally happens, about three-quarters of the way through the book, the suspense has been dragged out almost too long; you expect nothing less than the Titanic — and you almost get it.
Raymond, who lives in Ashland, Ore., and whose previous works include a short-story collection and two guidebooks for writers, has created an appealing, breathing heroine: Deb has “a thick skin and a penchant for solitude,” and likes the quiet and self-reflection that life in Antarctica among the penguins affords her. “Maybe I thought,” she muses, “that life down here would remain uncomplicated, and that I could keep the same pace, the same arm’s-length existence from the world, forever.”
The author of “My Last Continent” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Keller, less clearly drawn, is in love both with Deb and with Antarctica’s icy kiss — “the soothing wild peace of this place,” in Deb’s words. It’s a classic love triangle, and it plays out pretty much how you might expect; there are moments, late in the book, where you can practically hear the sweeping movie soundtrack. (Kate and Leo as Deb and Keller? I can see it.) You turn the pages quickly, caught up in the not-of-this-world drama of it all: Despite the heat of the central duo’s connection, this is a world of ice, where warm hearts struggle to thrive.
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Raymond sometimes struggles with dialogue; some of the exchanges (“We aren’t like your computers, Richard,” says a supporting character. “Our life is not a software program”) sound a bit stilted and writerly. And Deb’s way of seeing everything through the metaphor of penguin life occasionally feels repetitive; it’s understandable and believable that the character would think this way, but not always fresh for the reader.
However, Raymond shines in capturing a shivery sense of place, in taking us somewhere most of us will never go. On the research vessel, we hear “pieces of slushy ice rub against the steel [hull] like a wire brush”; we see a frozen expanse of ocean that “burns with white light.” With Deb and Keller, we “float along the edge of an iced city, the bergs rising out of the water like skyscrapers.” Romantic? Absolutely. Ominous? That, too.