Set “the day after tomorrow”, the second novel by Laline Paull — author of the Bailey’s Prize-shortlisted The Bees — warns of the coming dangers of global warming, not least the resulting “economic apartheid” that’s going to tear nations apart.
There are violent coups in the flooding Maldives; “shrinking snowlines” see Alpine ski resorts now only functioning at the very highest altitudes, and at astronomical prices (those that “make even the rich feel poor”); in Venice great chunks of the city are collapsing into the lagoon; and the British capital that “looked and felt wrong” is coated with a fine, gritty film of “ochre Saharan dust” blown across Europe from Africa, sending respiratory patients running to overcrowded A&E departments. In shining a spotlight on the growing connections between environmental damage and civil unrest, The Ice is an important and powerful novel, but it’s also strikingly prescient too.
It opens with the discovery of a body, that of Tom Harding, the victim of a caving accident in the Arctic. At the inquest subsequently held to determine the precise cause of death, a Cambridge professor of ocean physics called upon as an expert makes the most of his soapbox, apportioning blame to “the reckless endangering of our planet by every industry that ignores the environmental recommendations for how to operate, and to every government that fails to abide by the Paris Agreement.”
That the publication of Paull’s novel coincides with Donald Trump’s appalling announcement the US will withdraw from the climate treaty makes for all the more chilling reading. She can’t have predicted this, of course, but she gets a dig in regardless. “The world is governed by lunatics and we just sit quiet?” the eminent professor concludes in animated exasperation.
Flashback to a few years earlier and we learn that Tom, previously head of Greenpeace, was an idealistic environmentalist as obsessed with the Arctic as his best friend Sean Cawson. Despite having different end-goals in sight, the bond they forged at the Lost Explorer’s Society while students at Oxford is a strong one — “Tom really did want to save the world and Sean really did want to put his name on the map and become phenomenally wealthy. Both were articles of faith”. So much so that it sees them joining forces to establish a retreat that apparently reconciles “business and environmental ethics” on Svalbard, the new “Ibiza of the north”. Their roles that of “vigilant stewards of the Arctic”, or that’s what they tell themselves.
Disaster quickly follows, and what plays out thereafter is an intriguing environment thriller-cum-courtroom drama that sets personal betrayal alongside larger moral questions about wealth and power. Led by ideas rather than its characters, The Ice starts slow — reading the first few chapters was a little like trying to penetrate the “milky veil” Paull describes “that can suddenly appear in the Arctic like a spell, blanking out contours, hiding crevasses, wiping out direction”. But as the confusion mounts and loyalties are twisted, so too the pace soon ratchets up leading to a taught dén-ouement.