Review: A Woman in the Polar Night

9781782275640

This was a real book fluke for me. I was actually buying a couple of other books and needed one more to take up the multi-buy offer and was just drawn in by the cover. It probably took me less than 30 seconds to add to my pile and stroll off to the till.

From the inside cover …” She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to ‘read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content’ but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realise they are to live in a ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement”…

That was what it took, as a self-confessed lover of all things Nordic, I have yet to travel to Norway, let alone the Arctic region of Svalbard where this memoir is set.

Christiane Ritter, and artist and writer from Austria travelled to Spitsbergen to join her husband for a year in the wild in 1933. He had already been away for several years and she was only supposed to stay initially 6 months. They share a cabin with another hunter, who her husband often travels with or alone hunting for food, leaving her to fend for herself in the icy tundra. Her vivid descriptions of her surroundings, her emotions, the pressure the isolation and environment played on her mental health were visceral. I spent the whole book simultaneously wanting to visit and not visit Spitsbergen. I couldn’t help but admire this amazing woman, because to live like she did, off the land (eating seal blubber etc, hand to mouth some weeks) seemed unthinkable now, with all our mod cons and fleece lined technical clothing, let alone almost 90 years ago. I should point out that her husband seems like a bit of an idiot at times, it is noted that he took many utensils and tools from their home when he first went out but doesn’t know where they are, he might have left some in a hut 2 days travel away.

At the time of reading it became apparent to me that this was unlike most nature or travel memoirs I’ve read, in that its by a woman, especially for it’s time. Its easy to understand this book’s success which hasn’t been out of print in Germany.

If you want you can check out the book (and support this blog at the same time) by clicking through to my affiliate independent bookshop of choice – Blackwell’s  or of course by supporting your local bookshop.

There are some photos of the cabins (larger than I expected)and more information in this Independent article.