When Nights Were Cold (2012) by Susanna Jones
As the Second World War approaches, Grace Farringdon, a lonely and reclusive woman, is sheltering from the world in what was once her family home in Dulwich - now inhabited by Grace and a pair of eccentric lodgers. Estranged from her sister and seemingly without friends, she is haunted by memories of the past, and we soon discover she is a figure of such notoriety that a journalist may be trying to break into her house. She also reveals that she is the only survivor of 'the Society', following what seems to have been an expedition that went horribly wrong. Over the course of the night, she looks back on her memories of the events that led up to this incident, which form the bulk of the book's thoroughly engrossing narrative.
Grace's memories take us back to the days of her youth, when she longed for escape. Obsessed with explorers such as Scott and Shackleton, the celebrities of their day, she dreams of adventure but is constantly stifled by her overbearing father and subservient mother, who believe that women should be confined to the home. Adding to her anguish is the fate of her sister Catherine - a talented musician who is denied entry to college by her parents, and later seems to have spiralled into a form of madness. Determined that the same will not happen to her, Grace secures the funds needed to attend a women's college, where she sets up an Antarctic Exploration Society. At first, Grace and the other members - Leonora Locke, Cicely Parr and Winifred Hooper - simply plan to study the progress of famous explorers, but they quickly develop more ambitious plans.
Every nuance of emotion in this story is so wonderfully - and, sometimes, painfully - evoked. I felt that I was living Grace's experiences: her intense frustration at being trapped by her family; her intellectual and social awakening upon her entry to college; her desperate hope and subsequent heartbreak when a love affair turns sour; the anguish of friendships lost. The characters are also beautifully portrayed. The four girls make an unlikely set of friends - Grace is uncertain of her own identity, Locke is vibrant and overdramatic, Parr bossy and aloof, and Hooper far more reserved than the others. Additionally, Parr, unlike the other members of the Society, is staunchly opposed to women's suffrage, despite being by far the most independent and strong-willed of the group. This makes for a fascinating clash of personalities and beliefs which, while not always explicitly stated, is constantly present as an undercurrent in everything the group does.
I recently read the author's debut, The Earthquake Bird, which boasted a brilliantly twisted unreliable narrator, and I was hoping for more of the same from When Nights Were Cold. I wasn't disappointed: Grace is, indeed, a near-perfect example of the unreliable narrator, attempting to gain the reader's trust in her version of events but unwittingly allowing disconcerting glimpses of the truth. The plot twists and turns in unexpected directions (the nature of the Society's demise is not at all what you may assume at the beginning) and the story is consistently gripping, with diversions and surprises I didn't see coming.
I've read another review of this book which argued the case that it could have been deeper and richer, and I do actually agree with that. I would love to have seen more of the interaction between the four friends, and a more detailed exploration of their lives both at college and afterwards. I would have been happy to have read twice or three times as much about Grace and her fellow explorers. However, the story certainly didn't feel like it was lacking in any essential detail - indeed, the author's deft handling of such complex issues and characters within a relatively short book was one of the best things about it.
When Nights Were Cold is a more sophisticated and accomplished version of the type of tale told in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat - it combines a historical setting with the intrigue of a psychological thriller, and features a 'lone survivor' protagonist whose account cannot necessarily be trusted. I would also compare it to Jane Harris's Gillespie and I, another favourite of mine, and there are certain similarities with Sarah Waters' work, not least the tremendous sense of atmosphere and the author's skill at making you sympathise with a potentially deceitful character. I loved this book, to the point that I would recommend it to almost everyone: fans of historical fiction, unreliable narrators and/or slow-burning mysteries will find much to enjoy here.