Book review: White Heat by M J McGrath

Some like it hot...and some like it seriously cold.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 31st March 2011, 7:00 am

Melanie McGrath’s fascination with the freezing and unforgiving High Arctic landscape has taken her from The Long Exile, a real-life account of the Inuit people’s chequered history, to her first thrilling novel penned under the name M J McGrath.

White Heat, a clever and compelling crime mystery set deep inside the Canadian tundra, must surely have been a labour of love for a writer so inspired by its harsh terrain and high drama.

The hardy Inuits, their everyday battle to stay alive and the constant threat of climate change on their lifestyle drive the action in this inventive and unusual novel which whisks us off to minus 45 degree temperatures and air so blisteringly cold that it makes you want to wrap up warm just turning the pages.

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The small settlement of Autisaq on the forbidding Craig Island is home to Edie Kiglatuk, a former polar bear hunter and recovering alcoholic (‘Inuits and drink are a match made in hell’). Her life revolves around her twin guiding and teaching jobs, and her beloved stepson Joe Inukpuk.

Edie, who is half white, and Joe are both virtual outsiders; Edie’s job as a licensed guide is frowned upon by the ruling Elders and Joe is determined to become a nurse and help forge a new and unheard of Inuit professional class.

Chief among the settlement’s enemies are poor education, boredom, corruption, lethargy, developers, prospectors and the ever-shrinking Arctic – ‘like watching a beloved and aged parent gradually and inexorably come apart’.

The maverick Edie knows every last glacier, fiord and mountain ridge for 500 miles around and has never lost a client on her guiding trips.

All that changes, however, when she takes out two Kansas adventurers experiencing Arctic life in the raw and one of the men dies after a mysterious shooting.

Despite her conviction that his death was suspicious, the council of Elders dismiss the incident as an accident and refuse to call in the police to investigate.

Meanwhile, Bill Fairfax, descendant of the legendary Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax, arrives to try to locate his ancestor’s remains and hires Edie and Joe as guides for himself and his assistant, a man Edie has already encountered.

The two parties head off in different directions but when disaster strikes again, heartbroken Edie faces the greatest challenge of her life and sets out on a journey that will take her far from the only home she has ever known.

White Heat is a cracking story and about as close as you’ll get to understanding the isolated and fiercely independent Inuit people without pulling on boots and survival gear and flying out to the frozen North.

An adventure not to be missed.

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)