I’m not giving anything away when I say that My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is a romantic tragedy. Very early on in reading this novel the reader is told that there is going to be a deadly shipwreck off of Antarctica resulting in the deaths of 715 passengers, crew members and rescuers at some point in the story. The tragedy becomes a fact that the reader will have to contend with at an unknown point in the future, which only draws closer and closer the further into the book the reader goes. It starts as a far off object on the horizon…a small dot barely marring the view. But as the reader comes to learn who they are following, the specifics of what is at stake, the impending disaster grows in importance. It becomes personal and impossible to brush off as the iceberg looms closer and closer to the reader’s ship, until in the last fifty pages the catastrophic collision that you knew would happen and still weren’t prepared for occurs.
The reader follows Deb, an icy but not inaccessible protagonist. She is a naturalist whose work studying the wildlife of Antarctica and the effects of global warming and tourism on the continent is the perfect excuse to fulfill her lifelong desire of isolating herself from civilization. Over the course of several years, Deb falls in love with fellow-naturalist Keller, a blurry sort of man who is more impression than real character. Despite Keller’s lack of definition, it kind of worked for me in that I felt we saw Keller how Deb saw Keller…through a haze of love and adoration…not caring about the exact specifics of the man, not needing to know him inside and out. All Deb really needed to know was that Keller loved Antarctica and the penguins the way she loved them. Deb and Keller are brought together every year for their season in the ice in bleak but romantic partnership. As much as Deb yearns for a future with Keller, the reader gets the feeling that her hopes are unsustainable…just like the world they study. Every interaction between the two is romantic, but ominous. The precariousness of their situation is difficult to forget.
I like geographically rooted narratives. If you need evidence of this, just look at my review of Wintering by Peter Geye…another novel that makes an icy wilderness so complicated and real that it’s the most important character in the story. The heading of each chapter of My Last Continent gives not just the title of the island or body of water that the chapter is set in, but also the longitude and latitude. This is extremely useful to a map nerd like me, who pretty much requires an internet connection while reading so that I can look at maps of places mentioned.
I’m not going to say how, but it’s fairly obvious from the beginning of the novel that the shipwreck is going to be a pivotal event for Deb, Keller and Antarctica. During the actual shipwreck scenes I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Titanic”…in particular the romance between Jack and Rose. There’s no “I’ll never let go” scene…so don’t worry about that. But I was not entirely satisfied by the ending of the novel. Things were wrapped up conveniently in a way that I felt diminished the untidy nature of conservation work and global warming. Raymond had the choice to either end her novel for Deb or for Antarctica, and in my view she chose Deb. Which isn’t wrong, per say, but when it comes down to it…I’d choose Antarctica any day.
“Over the years, I’ve come to think of the continent not only as a place but as a living, breathing thing – to me, Antarctica has always been as alive as the creatures it houses: Every winter, the entire continent fattens up with ice, then shrinks again in the summer. When I’m here on the peninsula, looking out at the green and white of young ice and the deep, ancient blue of multiyear ice, I feel as though the bergs, too, are alive, sent forth by thousands of miles of glaciers to protect the continent from such predators as the Endurance and the Erebus, the Cormorant and the Australis.” – pg 123
Antarctica is the wild, spiteful, beautiful, resilient, vulnerable, territorial protagonist who has the most to lose and that is the real story here.
I’m going to end this review, not just by saying that Midge Raymond’s first novel has earned The Taste Maven Stamp of Approval, but also with the quotation that finally broke my heart…for Deb, for penguins, for Antarctica, for all of us:
“I look over at a nearby ice floe. An Adelie has just leapt onto it and turned his head to the side, considering the ship. I want to call out to him, warn him to get away – that soon he will be covered in oil; he will lose his body heat, his ability to swim and mate and feed his chicks. But Adelies are territorial. They don’t know how to leave.” – pg 314
Raymond, Midge. My Last Continent: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2016. Print.