Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2021

Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy

Just last week I was toying with the idea of joining Marina Sofia in her December reading project ‘Russians in the Snow’ because I thought that settings in snowy wastes would be consoling in the extreme heat of an Australian summer.  Little did I know that within a day or two I would be reading a book that sent a chill down my spine, and not just because it’s set in the polar region of Norway!

This is the blurb about Robyn Mundy’s new novel Cold Coast:

Inspired by the story of Svalbard’s first female trapper, Cold Coast is a gripping portrayal of survival within the stark beauty and perilous wilderness of the high Arctic.

In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work, is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

Mundy is brilliant at capturing the sensory immediacy of her characters’ environment.  She knows it well from her own experience in wild places.  Her first novel The Nature of Ice was set in Antarctica where she has wintered and summered; and she has worked seasonally in Svalbard, Greenland, Antarctica, the Norwegian Coast and wild Scotland as a ship-based tour guide.  This is the moment when it is too late for Wanny to change her mind:

The clanging of the anchor chain reverberates across the water to the shoreline where she stands beside Sæterdal.  Sjefen, Chief, the men call him. They watch as the boat swings out, three warbling blasts to signal farewell.  A year before they will see another ship.  A year away from those she holds most dear.  She draws herself firm, raises her arm, imagining how, from out there, she and he are two stick figures, barely human, marooned in frozen vastness.

When the ship motors from view, too late to change her mind, a man’s voice comes to her as sharply as the wind that shimmies down the mountain and knocks a fist between her shoulder blades. (p.29)

Summer is making a belated start here in Victoria, so it was comforting to read this novel under the warmth of the doona, but Cold Coast is not a book to read at bedtime because the narrative tension is constant.  It is not just foxes that break into the hut in search of food, bears do it too, and neither Sæterdal nor Wanny can relax their scrutiny of the landscape for long.  Every venture means risk, and there are heart-stopping moments when survival is touch and go, not least because they can rarely trust the ice beneath their feet.

Their New year trip to Fuglefjell has been delayed thanks to a second inscrutable week of heavy snow, then showers of rain, then freeze and hail, the only constant a fierceness of wind which jams new rafts of ice and logs of driftwood up along the shoreline.  Out in the fjord, bergs locked in the sea split and topple, issuing a booming thunder and opening up the ice until the gash refreezes.  When snowdrift eases enough to see out the back door, to make headway on skis beyond the Signal, they slip and slither on patches of black ice.  Their dogs slide on their haunches in a knot of harnesses, the sledge toppling when it hits the snow.  Wanny loses count of the trigger locks she pulls apart, the wooden pieces doused with rain then frozen in place, all along the trap line.  She struggles physically and mentally at the thought of twenty traps — the kilograms of stone to be offloaded, each trap cleared of snow before it can be rebaited, the aching effort of gingerly reloading thirty, forty kilograms of stone back onto a frame… (p.147)

Mundy does not shirk the confronting issue of hunting and trapping in this fragile environment.  Indeed, this novel is a powerful argument for why such places should be protected.  Wanny and Sæterdal are not evil, greedy people, but they are there to make money.  Some of what they kill is for food, but they prey on animals with a valuable pelt, because of human desires. When Wanny asks why a bearskin is worth less than a fox, Sæterdal taunts her:

The Chief scoffs. ‘Next time you are hobnobbing in your taxi, ask your own fair sex why they squander their husband’s savings to wear a fox’s coat.’

He dismisses women so harshly.  ‘Perhaps because it is practical,’ she retaliates.  ‘Because fox is warm and light as air to wear.  Because it is soft and utterly beautiful.’

‘Beautiful it may be.  Nought to do with practicality.  There are plenty of other options to keep a person warm.  ‘With ladies’, he says, ‘it is all about fashion and vanity.  The gentle art of persuasion that wives excel at with their husbands’ wallets,’ he says.  ‘You can be sure it is not you or me to reap the reward.  Fur traders are the ones growing fat on the profits.’ (p.147)

That, for Sæterdal, is a long speech! It takes great authorial skill to sustain a narrative about just two such reticent characters.  Wanny’s interior thoughts are predominant, but there are frequent glimpses of Sæterdal’s insecurities as well.  As the year progresses they share edited versions of their backstories, but neither is willing to go much beyond a precis.  Much of their time is spent in silence, but this wild place is not silent — there is the barking of their three dogs, the bird calls,  the rattle of the stovepipe in the hut, the hail on the roof drowning out any attempts at speech, the thunder of an iceberg calving, the howling of the wind or the deadening effects of a lethal fog.

Parallel to the story written from the human perspective is the story of the Blue Fox, runt of the litter and cheeky in its scorn for their plans to trap it.  It is a reminder that the polar regions belong to the wildlife there and that the humans are interlopers whose survival depends not on the resources of the natural world but rather what they bring with them.  However Sæterdal and Wanny do share some aspects of the fox’s survival arsenal.  What they bring with them, is not just the paraphernalia of guns, knives, tools, food and warm clothing, it is also courage, determination, skill, and a capacity to adapt and learn.

Cold Coast is going to be one of my Best Books of the Year.

PS Many thanks to Amanda Curtin for bringing this book to my attention.

Author: Robyn Mundy
Title: Cold Coast
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Ultimo Press (Hardie Grant), 2021
ISBN: 9781761150210, pbk., 277 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. You can’t move in Perth without stumbling over this book! Lol. I’ve not been tempted by it for some strange reason but your enticing review has made me reconsider …

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    • It says on Amanda Curtin’s blog that Mundy was due to talk about it somewhere in Perth, so maybe she’s doing a tour of the bookshops? Did you read Wildlight? I loved that book!

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      • Think she did a talk at Beaufort Street Books, which is a terrific shop but a little out my way to get to. I’d not actually heard of her before so I haven’t read her previous work. Will see what the library has available.

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        • “Will see what the library has available”. How good it is to be able to do that!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful, insightful review, Lisa. I’m so happy you loved this one as much as I did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I reckon this one will garner an international audience if it gets the right exposure. I note that Hardie Grant has a London branch of Ultimo Press so let’s hope it gets the attention it deserves.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Lisa, just finished reading Cold Coast last night. Loved it, and the two stories worked well together. I could feel the cold, the pain and the fear in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s great, Meg. It’s a wonderful homage to a very brave woman and the man who gave her a chance.

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  4. On my list!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. We may have been reading this at the same time! I enjoyed it very much and my review is scheduled to post on Thursday.

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  6. Reblogged this on writing the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Lisa, for this closely considered and most wonderful review. I know you well enough to understand that you review each book for its merits and its shortfalls, so I fully appreciate your enthusiasm for Cold Coast 😇🥰.— Robyn Mundy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robyn, for writing a book that gave me so much pleasure!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I decided as a child that I wanted nothing to do with my mother’s two fur coats, although she kept trying to tell me I would inherit them etc. It was a different time in the 1970s or whenever she got them. And I love the fact that you really went all-out freezing chill with this book!

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    • Yes, in the 70s I was given a fur for my 21st by my first MIL and I was appalled but too embarrassed to say so.
      I didn’t wear it but I had to wait until the Ex shot through to get rid of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Double snap, I finished reading this last night. I think it is a book that will stay with me. I could feel the cold, hear the sounds, see the terrain, feel the ice. Cold Coast will definitely be on my best books of 2021. I was a big fan of Wildlight too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This sounds stunning! I find the subject matter off-putting – I hate reading about animals being hurt – but you have persuaded me it’s not to be missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, and I did flinch the first time it was brought into the story, but it’s not overdone nor is it lingered over. Her character Wanny has to talk to herself sternly about doing it…

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I went to the launch of this book a couple of weeks back or so. Bought the book, enthused to read it, then my husband snared it and read it first. Looking forward to my turn. 🐧🌴☕

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL and he’s going to have to wait until you’ve read it before he dares to say a word about it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • As the author, the subject matter created a dilemma, wanting to be true to a 1930s mindset around trapping and hunting, while knowing that a contemporary reader would likely find those same values repugnant. If you choose to read Cold Coast, I’ll be interested to know how you felt about this aspect of the writing. Thanks for your interest 👍

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      • I think you’ve struck the right balance, Robyn, but we’ll have to wait for Pam to get her hands on the book to know what she thinks!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. […] that conjures up vivid images of being cold.  This year I recommend Robyn Mundy’s new book Cold Coast, which is about the first female trapper in the frozen wastes of […]

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  13. […] Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy […]

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