Eowyn Ivey’s second novel To the Bright Edge of the World is a carefully crafted blend of adventure, nature and love that stands on the boundary of myth and reality. Compellingly told through journal entries, letters, newspaper articles and military reports, Ivey’s Alaska is one brought to life from the viewpoints of several people, each trailblazers in their own way, and as the full story of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester’s expedition into the Alaskan wilderness comes together in all its wondrously vivid detail, you come away from To the Bright Edge of the World feeling like it was more fact than fiction.
At its core, this novel is about a government-ordered mission to explore the wilds of Alaska in the upper reaches of the treacherous Wolverine River. Although reluctant to go at first, Colonel Forrester heads up the near year-long mission and sets off on a race against time to make the journey across the river before the ice begins to thaw and makes it impossible. As he documents the dangerous mission in his journal, Allen describes the brutal realities of how he and his men are faced with extreme hardships, but there’s also no denying his awe at the beauty of the unexplored region – and the unexplainable, supernatural occurrences he finds himself witness to.
And as Allen is breaking new ground in his encounters with native tribes, cutting a human baby from the roots of a tree and finding his journey haunted by a 100-year-old shaman who shape shifts into a raven, his wife Sophie is left behind at Vancouver Barracks to face her own challenges – namely, trying to reconcile her naturalist desires and ambitions with the role that women were supposed to play in society. While she’s waiting to hear news of her husband’s expedition’s progress, Sophie begins to experiment with photography, much to the shock and dismay of most of the other army wives, and while her story is much less adventurous than her husband’s, it remains fascinating nonetheless.
Between the two stories playing out in parallel, and framed as it is by the modern day correspondence of the men organising and archiving the journals, To the Bright Edge of the World is a slow, detailed and at times dreamy narrative that threads together in various and unexpected ways. Sophie’s story may take a bit longer to get into and engage with, but from the very start of Allen’s, Ivey is sure to captivate with her lyrical descriptions of the Alaskan landscape and the blurred distinction between the hard reality of the Colonel’s life-threatening expedition and the more fantastical perceived reality of native folklore.
“I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living & the dead. All that I have taken for granted, what I have known as real & true, has been called into question.”
Grounded in reality as the novel is – and presented as it is in the journals of a practical, level-headed man – these magical realist moments can be a bit jarring in their earliest instances. It’s a testament to Ivey’s engaging structure, then, that by the end of the book, you’re as convinced as Allen and his great-nephew Walt that there may be some element of truth to everything he’s written.
For what presents itself as quite a laborious and technical read, To the Bright Edge of the World is actually a delightfully surprising tale that is very skilfully written. The flashes of Other in Allen’s account keep the expedition from becoming too matter-of-fact to engage with, while Sophie’s determination to learn the technical skill of photography lifts her story from becoming too much like one we’ve all heard so many times. It’s a difficult balance that’s well-maintained through Ivey’s gorgeous descriptions and only enhanced by the inclusion of photos, drawings, artefact descriptions and articles that break up the narrative too.
In all, To the Bright Edge of the World is a slow set up of a beautiful time and place, but once you’re fully immersed in it, you won’t want it to finish.
To the Bright Edge of the World is out now in hardback via Tinder Press and is published in paperback on 29 August 2017