"From the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle comes a harrowing new thriller as a linguist, broken-hearted after the apparent suicide of her glaciologist brother, ventures hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle to try to communicate with a young girl who has thawed from the ice alive"-
Erica Ferencik is the award-winning author of the acclaimed thrillers The River at Night, Into the Jungle, and Girl in Ice, which The New York Times Book Review declared "hauntingly beautiful." Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik.
*Starred Review* Val Chesterfield has had a difficult life. Growing up without a mother, she always felt second-best to her twin, Andy. A passionate environmentalist, Andy killed himself at a remote research station in the Arctic, where he was working with his mentor, Wyatt Speeks. After Andy's death, Val, a gifted linguist, became even more tormented, depending on pills and alcohol to function. Then, out of the blue, she receives an email from Speeks saying he's made a shocking discovery: he's found a child, frozen in ice, and has thawed her out alive. However, when she speaks, it is in an unintelligible language. Speeks asks Val to come to the Arctic and see if she can understand the child. Val knows she will be far out of her comfort zone but is drawn to the Arctic not only to help the child, but also to see the place where Andy died. When she arrives, she finds the endless snow and ice terrifying, but when the child begins to respond to her, the situation becomes both more bearable and more frightening. The story evokes a palpable sense of foreboding and becomes increasingly ominous as it highlights the power of nature-and of human emotion. Original, intense, powerful, disturbing, and utterly mesmerizing, this one, which evokes Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, will stay with readers long after they've finished the book. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.
When a girl frozen in ice at the Arctic Circle thaws out alive, an ancient Nordic languages specialist with troubles of her own is called to the scene. Ferencik-author of Into the Jungle (2019)-specializes in thrillers set in wilderness environments with female protagonists; her latest takes us to the land of subzero temperatures and wind-whipped polar landscapes. But bad weather is just the beginning of the unpleasantness Val Chesterfield encounters when she overcomes her many phobias to fly out and help climate scientist Wyatt Speeks with his perplexing specimen. The girl he chopped out of the wall of a crevasse and defrosted is terrified, violent, and unintelligible. While Wyatt is creepy on many levels, creepiest of all is his unwillingness to discuss the death by exposure of his erstwhile lab partner, Val's twin brother, Andy. Andy's having gotten locked out of the house overnight in his underwear has been presented as a suicide, but neither Val nor her father, also a climate scientist, believe it. Belief is a problem all through this book-the elements made up to serve the plot rest on a foundation of real climate science, linguistics, and cultural history but still don't manage to be convincing. The five characters-Val, Wyatt, a nasty cook, and a pair of married marine scientists-are also less than lifelike. Saddled with mental health issues and bad manners, their interactions range from rude to abusive except for the married couple, who are so in love it's nauseating. You really wouldn't want to be stuck in a room with these people, which poor Val is much of the time, and now someone has stolen her anxiety meds and hidden the booze! She finds herself becoming deeply attached to the mystery girl, but progress with communication is slow, and the girl's health takes a drastic turn for the worse. And then they all go outside and things get crazy. Tense, claustrophobic, and a bit hard to swallow. Copyright Kirkus 2021 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Chapter One one Seeing the name "Wyatt Speeks" in my inbox hit me like a physical blow. Everything rushed back: the devastating phone call, the disbelief, the image of my brother's frozen body in the Arctic wasteland.
I shut my laptop, pasted a weak smile on my face. There would be no bursting into tears at school. Grief was for after hours, for the nightly bottle of merlot, for my dark apartment, for waking on the couch at dawn, the blue light of the TV caressing my aching flesh.
No, at the moment my job was to focus on the fresh, eager face of my graduate student as she petitioned for a semester in Tibet, a project in a tiny village deep in the Himalayas accessible only via treacherous mountain passes on foot and maybe yak, all to decipher a newly discovered language. As I listened to her impassioned plea-trying to harness my racing heart-an old shame suffused me.
The truth was, I'd never embarked into the field anyplace more frightening than a local graveyard to suss out a bit of Old English carved into a crumbling stone marker. And even then I made sure to go in broad daylight, because dead people-even underground-frightened me too. Never had my curiosity about a place or a language and its people overridden my just say no reflex. Citing schedule conflicts, I'd declined a plum semester-long gig in the Andean mountains of Peru to study quipu, or "talking knots"-cotton strings of differing lengths tied to a cord carried from village to village by runners, each variation in the string signaling municipal facts: taxes paid or owed; births and deaths; notices of famine, drought, crop failure, plague, and so on. I'd even passed on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to deconstruct a language carved into the two-thousand-year-old Longyou caves in Quzhou, China.
Anxiety: the crippling kind. I'm tethered to the familiar, the safe, or what I perceive as safe. I function normally in only a handful of locations: my apartment, most places on campus-excluding the football stadium, too much open space-the grocery store, my father's nursing home. During my inaugural trip to the new, huge, and sparkly Whole Foods-chilled out on a double dose of meds-a bird flew overhead in the rafters. All I could think was, When is it going to swoop down and peck my eyes out? I never went back.
Ironically, I was the one with the power to give or withhold the stamp of approval for my students' research trips, as if I were any judge of risk and character. Watching the glistening eyes of the young woman before me, one of my favorite students, I stalled a few moments-tossing out a couple of insipid questions about her goals-an attempt to soak up her magic normalcy. No such luck. I signed off on her trip to Tibet wondering, How does she see me, really? I knew she was fond of me, but-that casual wave of her silver-braceleted hand as she turned to leave, that look in her eye! I swear I caught a glint of pity, of disdain. It was like she knew my secret. Her teacher was a fraud.
I'M A LINGUIST. I can get by in German and most Romance tongues, and I've got a soft spot for dead languages: Latin, Sanskrit, ancient Greek. But it's the extinct tongues-Old Norse and Old Danish-that enrapture me.
Languages reveal what it is to be human. This desire to make ourselves understood is primal. We make marks on paper, babble snippets of sound-then agree, by way of miracle-that these scribblings or syllables actually mean something, all so we can touch each other in some precise way. Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love, from the particular love of a new mother for her baby to one for unrequited romantic love, but it has twice as many for grief. My favorite is sokaparayana, which means "wholly given up to sorrow." A strange balm of a word, gentle coming off my tongue.
Though words came easily for me, I tended to miss the patterns that were staring me in the face. The fact that my ex genuinely wanted out didn't hit me until divorce papers were served. The fact of my father passing from just old to genuinely ill with lung cancer and not-here-for-much-longer didn't sink in until I was packing up the family home and found myself on my knees in tears, taken down by dolor repentino, a fit of sudden pain. The stark realization that my twin brother, Andy-the closest person in the world to me-had been pulling away for months came to me only after his death and at the very worst times: lecturing in an auditorium packed with students, conversing with the dean in the hallway. When it happened, these vicious, sudden, psychic stabs, I'd briefly close my eyes or turn away to cough, repeating to myself: sokaparayana, sokaparayana, until I could speak again.
I felt safest in my office, alone with my books, charts, runic symbols, and scraps of old text; and when I deciphered a chunk of language-even a word!-a thrill of understanding juddered up my spine. The distance between me and another human being, just for that moment, was erased. It was as if someone were speaking to me, and me alone.
For two decades, these glimmers of connection had been enough to sustain me, but over time, they began to lose their shine. These private revelations no longer fed me, warmed me like they had. I yearned to be drawn closer to the human heart. Not through words-however telling or ingenious-but in the living world.
AT PRECISELY EIGHT o'clock that night-the end of office hours-I got up and locked the door. Squared my shoulders, smoothed my skirt, and sat back down. Outside my window, remorseless late-August sun cast long shadows across the drought-singed grass of the quad.
I clicked open my email. The subject line was blank, but then, Wyatt had never bothered with niceties. My head pounded with end-of-summer-session exhaustion. I was in no mood to hear from Professor Speeks about my brother, his fond recollections of mentoring Andy through the rigors of grad school, or even some funny thing Andy had said or done during their year together on the ice.
I considered deleting the message without reading it, but a tingling buzzed my fingers. Something said: Don't. Still, I resisted until some darker knowledge swarmed up from the base of my spine, warning me it would be a terrible mistake not to open it.
Hey Val, hope you're doing well, all things considered. Something's happened out here. We found a body in the ice out on Glacier 35A. A young girl. We were able to cut through the ice and bring her back to the compound. Val, she thawed out alive. Don't ask me to explain it, I can't. She's eight, nine years old, I'm guessing. And she's talking pretty much nonstop, but in a language I've never heard before. Even Pitak, our supply runner from Qaanaaq, had no idea, and he speaks Inuktun. Jeanne's stumped, too, so we're both just keeping the girl fed and nodding our heads a lot and trying to figure out what to do next.
I've pasted here one of her vocalizations. Maybe you can figure out what she's saying? You're the expert. Give it a try, then call me as soon as you can. And please don't tell anyone about this.
The MP3 stuttered across my screen like a city skyline. The girl thawed out alive?
Sweat bloomed on my brow, even though the air conditioner was blasting. I got up, walked to my window, sat back down. Checked the time: too early for a pill. I knocked back the remaining swallow of stale coffee in my mug, rattled open my file drawer, extracted a bottle of Amaretto, and filled the cup halfway. The sweet, warm alcohol hit my empty stomach fast. Smoothed away the sharp edges.
I thought about all the times I'd let Andy's voice play in my head these past five months, how he was still so alive for me in this way. Memories of us as kids chasing each other through the lake house in upstate New York, T-shirts still damp from swimming. Or cozied up with our beloved mutt Frida, playing go fish and Monopoly while our parents got tight and happy on cocktails: a rare glimmer of joy during their disintegrating marriage. And so we were comforted, sharing the delusion that if we were just good enough, they would stay together.
Little by little I'd pored over the photos, letting myself "feel everything," as my shrink instructed. Mourning every shirt and shoe, I gave away or got rid of his clothes and belongings; though, there were a few I couldn't part with, his drawings especially. The only other place he lived on was in my phone: a dozen saved messages remained.
Now, on my screen, the forward arrow on the voice clip throbbed red. My finger trembled as it hovered over the play button. I steadied it, pushing down.
The first slam to my gut was the panic in this high, sweet girl voice that-even if you didn't understand a word she said-made you want to reach out and wrap her in a hug. The tremulous ache in her utterly foreign words only intensified in the twenty-eight-second clip, as if she was pleading for something. I tried to picture this child trapped in the ice, to imagine what horrors had brought her there.
I played it again.
What language is this?
Of course, West Greenlandic was my first guess, but I heard no correlation. It wasn't Danish, either-Greenland had been settled by Danes-but no, this was Danish put through a blender and mixed with what, Finnish? Not quite that, either. The vowels were too long, the accent on the last syllable. It wasn't Norwegian, clearly, and it was too clipped and choppy to be Swedish. I pulled up some Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and listened alongside the girl's quavering voice. The cadences were similar in places, but I couldn't match up a single word. This language was completely new to me.
I was lost.
I listened again.
My face grew hot. Breath clouding the screen, I leaned in close, as if proximity might help.
Nothing-all I understood was raw emotion.
I sat back. Tried to recall all I knew linguistically about where Wyatt was-where Andy had died.
Three main dialects of Greenlandic were spoken in Greenland: West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, and Inuktun, which had only about a thousand native speakers. In grad school, I'd been fascinated by this culture built from animal skin, sinew, bone, stone, snow, and ice, but in the end, I became more of a generalist. I deciphered languages quickly-given enough context and clues.
I got up and paced, holding my drink. The reality was, I didn't have to do anything. I could pretend I never opened the email. Ignore Wyatt's calls. All I wanted was to crawl back home and hide with my booze and my misery and never come out.
If only I hadn't heard her voice! I could have forgotten the whole thing. But even after the clip stopped playing I could still hear her, feel the sound, a high thrum in my jaw. Talking to Wyatt-even emailing him-brought back all the horror with Andy, but who was this girl? And why no picture or video-was there something he didn't want me to see? I turned, taking stock of the four walls of my tiny world. My achingly familiar posters, bookshelves, knickknacks-even my framed honors and awards-both comforted and repulsed me. It's just a phone call, Val, I thought. For the love of God, you can do this.
I knocked back the rest of my Amaretto and picked up the landline to dial Wyatt halfway around the world at his climate research station on Taararmiut Island, translated "land of shadows," off Greenland's northwest coast. Already my palm was slick with sweat as I listened to the odd dud-dud-dud of the international call. If it wasn't too cloudy, and the antennae hadn't been ripped away by the near constant fifty-mile-per-hour winds, the satellite call would go through, and there would be simply no going back.