My Last Continent is what you might call an eco-romance, which was a new one on me in the genre department. It is not so much a love story between the two lead characters as a testament to their shared passion for the penguins they are studying in a brutal and unforgiving arctic landscape. And you need to park any preconceptions about penguins before we go any further: Happy Feet this is not.

The story begins at the end and there&’s been a disaster. Our narrator, Deb Gardner, a post-doctoral researcher, is shepherding a bunch of environmental tourists around a penguin colony, exasperated by their lack of interest in the remarkable creatures she has spent half a lifetime trying to protect. Instead, all the tourists want to know about the sinking of a massive cruise ship, the Australis, which went down nearby, killing 715 passengers and crew.  

The rest of the book is structured with chapter headings that count down to this appaling catastrophe  — “one week before shipwreck”, “four days before shipwreck” — interspersed with Deb’s backstory. She flips between the two with an air of resignation and sadness, though whether this is over the fate of the penguins or the passengers we are not sure. But the overtones of  Titanic are strong from the outset and we all know how that turned out.

Deb is a doughty, independent traveller, well suited to the glacial vistas of the arctic circle where she spends much of her time, monitoring penguins and acting as a guide on the Cormorant, an eco cruise-ship. “We are both built for ice,” she says. “I’ve got a thick skin and a penchant for solitude, she&’s got a reinforced hull.”

After years spent in the emotional deep freeze, no one is more surprised than Deb when her heart is thawed by a charming rogue in a red bandana, Keller Sullivan. They meet on a drafty transport plane on the way to Antarctica, as you do. He to wash dishes, she to do a census of a colony of emperors in the shadow of Mount Erebus. They fall in love in sub-zero temperatures, in the lee of Scott&’s expedition hut.  

Theirs is a serious romance. At once intense but also selfis — Keller becomes a zealous environmental champion, leaving Deb to play second fiddle to the feathered inhabitants of the shrinking ice caps. However much he tries to reassure her of his love, she feels increasingly shortchanged and hard-done by. They meet rarely and only for short periods of time.

This unique scenario is as refreshing as it is poignant. Raymond wears her green credentials lightly but you share her frustration that human interference in this pristine and precious environment is deeply and irrevocably destructive. But the dilemma Deb and Keller (and presumably many like them) face is that in order to preserve they must also, to an extent, pollute. Both are obliged to take jobs on the tourist flotilla that makes its money from ferrying wealthy tourists to these endangered habitats.

It is a completely absorbing and sobering tale. If it is more than a little in James Cameron’s debt in terms of visualising a colossal ship and its arrogant crew being humbled by an implacable nature, it also leaves you with a far greater appreciation of a searingly beautiful world, whose fate we are squandering so casually.

the independent