first published on 03 March, 2011 (Mantle)
Nothing on the tundra rotted . . . The whole history of human settlement lay exposed there, under that big northern sky. There was nowhere here for bones to hide.
On Craig Island, a vast landscape of ice north of the Arctic Circle, three travellers are hunting duck. Among them is expert Inuit hunter and guide, Edie Kiglatuk; a woman born of this harsh, beautiful terrain. The two men are tourists, experiencing Arctic life in the raw, but when one of the men is shot dead in mysterious circumstances, the local Council of Elders in the tiny settlement of Autisaq is keen to dismiss it as an accident.
Then two adventurers arrive in Autisaq hoping to search for the remains of the legendary Victorian explorer Sir James Fairfax. The men hire Edie – whose ancestor Welatok guided Fairfax – along with Edie’s stepson Joe, and two parties set off in different directions. Four days later, Joe returns to Autisaq frostbitten, hypothermic and disoriented, to report his man missing. And when things take an even darker turn, Edie finds herself heartbroken, and facing the greatest challenge of her life . . .
As she set a chip of iceberg on the stove for tea, Edie Kiglatuk mulled over why it was that the hunting expedition she was leading had been so spectacularly unsuccessful. For one thing, the two men she was guiding were lousy shots. For another, Felix Wagner and his sidekick Andy Taylor hadn’t seemed to care if they made a kill nor not. Over the past couple of days they’d spent half their time gazing at maps and writing in notebooks. Maybe it was just the romance of the High Arctic they were after, the promise of living authentically in the wild with the Eskimo, like the expedition brochure promised. Still, she thought, they wouldn’t be
living long if they couldn’t bring down something to eat.
She poured the boiling berg water into a thermos containing qungik, which white people called Labrador tea, and set aside the rest for herself. You had to travel more than three thousand kilometres south from Umingmak Nuna, Ellesmere Island, where they were now, to find qungik growing on the tundra, but for some reason southerners thought Labrador tea was more authentic, so it was what she always served to her hunting clients. For herself, she preferred Soma brand English Breakfast, brewed with iceberg water, sweetened with plenty of sugar and enriched with a knob of seal blubber. A client once told her that in the south, the water had been through the bowels of dinosaurs before it reached the faucet, whereas berg water had lain frozen and untouched by animal or human being pretty much since time began. Just one of the reasons, Edie guessed, that southerners were prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars to come up this far north. In the case of Wagner and Taylor, it certainly wasn’t for the hunting.
Sometime soon these two were about to get a deal more High Arctic authenticity than they’d bargained for. Not that they knew it yet. While Edie had been fixing tea, the wind had changed; squally easterlies were now sweeping in from the Greenlandic ice cap, suggesting a blizzard was on its way. Not imminently, but soon. There was still plenty time enough to fill the flasks with tea and get back to the gravel beach where Edie had left the two men sorting out their camp.
She threw another chip of berg into the can and while the water was heating she reached into her pack for her wedge of igunaq and cut off a few slices of the fermented walrus gut. The chewing of igunaq took some time, which was part of the point, and as Edie worked the stuff between her teeth she allowed her thoughts to return to the subject of money and from there to her stepson, Joe Inukpuk, who was the chief reason she was out here in the company of two men who couldn’t shoot. Guiding paid better than the teaching that took up the remainder of her time, and Joe needed money if he was to get his nurse’s qualification.
He couldn’t expect to get any help from Sammy, his father and Edie’s ex, or from his mother Minnie. Edie didn’t spook easily – it took a lot to frighten an ex-polar bear hunter – but it scared her just how badly she wanted Joe to be able to go ahead with his nursing training. The Arctic was full of qalunaat professionals, white doctors, white nurses, lawyers and engineers, and there was nothing wrong with most of them, but it was time Inuit produced their own professional class. Joe was certainly smart enough and he seemed committed. If she was thrifty and lucky with clients, Edie thought she could probably save enough this coming summer to put him through the first year of school. Guiding hunting expeditions was no big deal, like going out on the land with a couple of toddlers in tow. She knew every last glacier, fiord or esker for five hundred miles around. And no one knew better than Edie how to hunt.
The chip of berg had melted and she was unscrewing the top of the first thermos when a sharp, whipping crack cut through the gloom and so startled her that she dropped the flask. The hot liquid instantly vaporized into a plume of ice crystals, which trembled ever so slightly in the disrupted air. The hunter in her knew that sound, the precise, particular pop of 7mm ammunition fired from a hunting rifle, something not unlike the Remington 700s her clients were carrying.
She squinted across the sea ice, hoping for a clue as to what had happened, but her view of the beach was obscured by the iceberg. Up ahead, to the east of the beach, the tundra stared blankly back, immense and uncompromising. A gust of wind whipped frost smoke off the icepack. She felt a surge of irritation. What the hell did the qalunaat think they were doing when they were supposed to be setting up camp? Firing at game? Given their lack of enthusiasm for the shoot, that seemed unlikely. Maybe a bear had come too close and they were letting off a warning shot, though if that were the case, it was odd that her bear dog, Bonehead, hadn’t picked up the scent and started barking. A dog as sensitive as Bonehead could scent a bear a couple of kilometres away. There was nothing for it but to investigate. Until they got back to the settlement at Autisaq, the men were officially her responsibility and these days Edie Kiglatuk took her responsibilities seriously.
She retrieved the flask, impatient with herself for having dropped it and spilled the water, then, checking her rifle, began lunging at her usual, steady pace through deep drift towards the snowmobile. As she approached, Bonehead, who was tethered to the trailer, lifted his head and flapped his tail; if he’d picked up so much as a hint of bear, he’d have been going crazy by now. Edie gave the dog a pat and tied in her cooking equipment. Just as she was packing the flasks under the tarp, a sharp, breathless cry flew past and echoed out over the sea ice. Bonehead began to bark. In an instant, Edie felt her neck stiffen and a thudding started up in her chest. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to her that someone might be hurt.
White Heat reviews
“White Heat is a blazing star of a thriller: vivid, tightly-sprung, and satisfying on all levels. Encountering Edie Kiglatuk, the toughest, smartest Arctic heroine since Miss Smilla, left me with that rare feeling of privilege you get on meeting extraordinary people in real life. A huge achievement.”
Liz Jensen, author of The Rapture
“This is a novel in which the cold seems to leak from the page, leaving you chilled, both by its suspenseful plot and by the epic descriptions of this vast white landscape. For those seeking a palate cleanser after the sensationalist high-violence of Stieg Larsson, this quietly compelling tale of ice and intrigue should be high on their list.”
Beth Jones, The Telegraph
“Edie’s a tough cookie: she fights her way through the icefields with a tenacity that armchair explorers everywhere will relish. Let’s see more of her.”
Jane Jakeman, The Independent
Hear me talk about White Heat on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week with Andrew Marr here