As Queen Victoria’s reign reaches its end, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps.
Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess . . .
Every so often, it’s rather nice to get away from the publication deadlines and the pursuit of the latest releases, and to read a book because someone said “I really enjoyed it”. OK, so that someone was Sophie Orme at Mantle, Pan Macmillan, and she might not be entirely impartial – When Nights Were Coldwas published by Mantle in March 2012 – but there was something about this book that drew me in, firstly from the description, then from the moment I started to read.
It’s a fascinating story, on the surface an early century tale of two daughters endeavouring to kick against their over-protective Victorian parents and society’s expectations of young women, a wonderful tale, rich with atmosphere and historical detail, stiflingly claustrophobic. Grace’s father encourages her passion for exploration – following the polar expeditions through newspaper reports and games with counters and maps – with no expectation that it will be more than an academic interest. Her sister is an accomplished pianist, but gives up her hopes to study music following her family’s opposition – far better she should care for her parents and seek to make a good marriage.
Grace has a magnificent imagination – she recreates in her head the reality of heading for the pole with Shackleton (for whom she has a passion). Having seen her sister trapped at home, she is determined that the same will not happen to her, and we see her attending university and forging a new life and new friendships. Together with three strangely matched friends – Leonora with her actress mother and liberal upbringing, bookish Winifred and moneyed Cecily with her adventurer parents – Grace forms the Antarctic Exploration Society, and she has the opportunity to turn her dreams into reality.
It’s a wonderful adventure story with the most unlikely lead characters, with wonderful scenes in Snowdonia and the Alps, later overshadowed by great tragedy. Grace finally returns alone to the home she worked so hard to leave, the subject of some notoriety but still living largely in the world of her imagination. All the characters are wonderfully rich and complex, none more so than Grace, and her slightly skewed view of life coupled with some confusion over what is real and what is imagined makes the book absolutely engrossing. Susanna Jones writes quite wonderfully – the Alps above Zermatt in a snowstorm are as vivid as the domestic vignettes in the family drawing room, and the cold really gets into your bones as you read. And it’s a wonderful psychological thriller – the reader slowly uncovers the full story behind the fact that Grace is the only survivor.
I’ve never read anything by Susanna Jones before, but if this book is an example of what she can do, I’ll most certainly be reading more. I loved this one.
Susanna Jones was born in Hull in 1967 and grew up in Hornsea in East Yorkshire. She studied drama at Royal Holloway, University of London and then spent several years abroad, including two years in Turkey and five years in Japan. She taught English in secondary schools, language schools, a steel corporation and worked as an assistant editor and presenter for NHK Radio.
In 1996 she studied for an MA in Novel Writing at the University of Manchester and now lectures in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She lives in Brighton where she is a co-creator of The Brighton Moment. Her work has been translated into over twenty languages and has won the CWA John Creasey Dagger, a Betty Trask Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
Susanna has an excellent website where you can find out more about her work.