Scribner, June 21, 2016.
My Last Continent is a beautiful, unusual love story – the love between a woman and a man, but also the love of both for the continent of Antarctica. Deb and Keller meet there, and it is where their love grows, as they observe penguin colonies and shifting icebergs. They find it easy to love while in the isolation of a snowstorm – but it is not so easy to survive as a couple in the real world. Like the penguins they study who sometimes mate for life, they are “loyal first and always to the continent.” (p. 79) While the main characters here are realistic and likeable, it is the setting and its wildlife that are the true stars of this novel.
The novel begins with a prologue titled “Afterwards,” describing a fatal shipwreck in the shifting ice floes of the waters around the Antarctic. In this future setting, Deb is guiding tourists through a penguin habitat, but all they ask her are questions about the cruise ship that sank five years before – the worst disaster in the history of the continent. The Australis lost over seven hundred passengers and crew, including several rescuers – and Deb doesn’t tell the tourists that, victim and rescuer, “we are one and the same.” (p. 3)
Chapters follow with headings such as “One Week Before Shipwreck”, continuing to build anticipation. The timeline jumps from years before to only days before the tragic event that claimed so many lives. Deb’s perspective is the main one, as we watch her relationship develop with Keller over years of seasonal travel to the Antarctic. As a research scientist, Deb spends part of every year on the southernmost continent, and feels most alive in the icy climate. Keller travels to Antarctica to escape a tragedy back home, and ends up staying in this new land where he feels truly alive. Both are obsessed with the continent and its creatures, wishing to preserve their habitat as it changes rapidly due to climate change.
To fund her research program, Deb must work as tour guide on a small vessel, the Cormorant. She tries to instill respect in her tourists, and teaches them that all of their actions and choices contribute directly to the global warming that is threatening the penguins. However, she must be careful what she says, because these people are also paying for her research. The Antarctic is imperiled by those that wish to enjoy it, seeing as the “last continent” to be crossed off their bucket list. In contrast, Deb feels like she is a part of the frozen landscape – she compares herself to her ship, saying “we are both built for the ice.” (p. 6)
The shipwreck is of course the pivotal point in the novel, and we know about it from the start, but that doesn’t take away from the thrilling aspect of the story as it slowly draws closer to the main event. The chapters, moving back and forth through time, circle around the climax, flowing like the sea around an iceberg to unavoidable catastrophe. When it finally happens, the descriptions are sensational, cinematic and shocking. The author clearly develops the stark isolation of the landscape, making the chaos of the shipwreck all the more dramatic compared to the surrounding lack of sensory input. The strength of this novel truly is the setting.
This is a quiet love story combined with an intense environmental thriller. The reader is immersed in the natural world, then that world is shattered by a major disaster – and not only for the human victims of the wreck. Deb’s first concern is that the remnants of the ship, as it slowly sinks to the bottom of the ocean, will destroy the natural habitat at an even more rapid speed than climate change. The author clearly has an agenda here – her passion for the Antarctic is a warning that we have to live with care to preserve this mostly unexplored world. The descriptions of wildlife are sometimes lengthy, but I still enjoyed them because the information is just so interesting.
Even with its many themes and concepts, the novel flowed smoothly and I loved reading it – I really couldn’t put it down. The love between Deb and Keller is realistic and believable, but it is their love for the Antarctic that makes this novel so special.
I was asked by the publisher to compare My Last Continent with another forthcoming novel: Arturo Perez-Reverte’s What We Become. Aside from the obvious (near-identical covers, cruise ship settings, characters named Keller), the two books are more different than similar. Both involve intense love affairs that develop from sporadic meetings over the course of many years – Deb and Keller in My Last Continent, and Max and Mecha in What We Become. When they are reunited in the present, both couples are faced with a climactic event that shakes their relationship to its core. For Deb and Keller, it makes them stronger – their love is stripped to the basics and they learn what really matters in life. For Max and Mecha, current circumstances pull them apart, and they realize that their love may have been based on excitement and danger all along, with no real basis. And while both novels are large in scope, My Last Continent also delves into the minutiae of life, the details that make a real love story. In contrast, What We Become is epic in scale, but it doesn’t reach into the souls of its main characters in quite the same way. Both novels were strong, and I recommend both for summer reading, but for me, My Last Continent was a much more enjoyable read that I connected with on a deeper level.
I received this novel from Scribner/Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.