Review: Cold Coast by Robyn Mundy

The summer of 1932 in Tromsø, Norway, the trapper Anders Sæterdal is looking for a partner to accompany him for the winter hunting season. He finds them in Ivanna “Wanny” Woldstad, a taxi driver with ambitions to become a hunter of the polar north. Woldstad, an author’s note explains, is the real person who became the first woman hunter on Svalbard, the ice-bound archipelago in the Arctic that literally means “cold coast”. In this impressive and exciting novel, Robyn Mundy richly evokes the tribulations and wonders of surviving through the mørketid, the polar night.

It is in many respects a simple tale, its main tension simply whether Anders and Wanny will harvest enough skins, and whether they will survive, and even that is guaranteed for at least one of the characters. There are number of good heart-in-mouth misadventures, the stock of any adventure novel worth the name, but here they feel as though they emerge entirely organically. Getting lost in fog, plunging down an icy slope, getting trapped in fast ice, and most of it happening under the unearthly light of the moon or northern lights: all in a winter’s work for an Arctic trapper. Later a will-they-won’t-they romance emerges elegantly from the elemental story happening around it, a little human flame burning in the cold.

Alternating chapters, including the very first, give the perspective of some of the hunted creatures — a polar bear, a guillemot, and most notably a small, blue-haired Arctic Fox, the runt of her litter, whose territory overlaps with Anders’s hunting license. The wily blue fox sniffs around the selvskudds and the scissors, the brutal traps used to capture the Arctic creatures, in the delicate dance of hunter and hunted. But the contrapuntal structure — predators chasing each other through the narrative — invites the question of who is who: just as the trappers pursue fox and bear, the tables can easily turn. Lurking everywhere in Cold Coast is the unsettling truth that people are part of the food chain, and despite our adaptability we are at the ultimate whim of our environment, or as the book puts it, “this odd assortment of the living, the slain and the soon-to-perish”. Here’s Wanny, for instance, on the apprehension of the inevitable meeting with a bear:

In her mind she has trained a hundred times for the moment she meets her first bear. She cannot lose her composure. She will not. Wanny thinks to the hunting tales she coaxed from trappers while taxiing them through town. More than one, loosened by beer, spoke of losing his senses, standing paralysed at an unexpected encounter with a bear.

Cold Coast touches on many themes — the gendered nature of freedom and labour, the responsibilities to the more-than-human — but it wears them lightly, always subsumed in the sublimity of its setting. I’ve read some dour and grim takes on life in harsh places but this one is as nimble as an Arctic Fox. Page after page Mundy evokes the wonders of the polar landscape, the pulse of its seasons. Wanny particularly ponders this sense of awe, and provokes Anders to do the same. Why Svalbard?

Because it is a place of stories … it leaves me with a kind of longing … to live with nature, experience the place which leaves a deep and aching impression on every man who goes there.

Even so, there is a poignancy in Cold Coast derived from its historical setting. “There is always ice up there; there always will be,” Anders says of northern Svalbard. “In this place, life and death are given and taken by the ice,” Wanny thinks, “A cycle bigger than her small life, a constant that will surely outlive her children, and her children’s children.” Svalbard is one of the fastest warming places in the Arctic, already warming 4-5 degrees. Record glacial melt was recorded in 2022 and the amount of fast ice that forms on the sea around the islands has already declined by half. Such ice is the breeding ground for seals, the prey of polar bears. Lurking in Cold Coast is the grim likelihood that, like the BBC’s Frozen Planet series, such stories will eventually become records of lost times.

Gay rating: not gay, although surely the trappers who traditionally took men as partners found a way to keep warm in the polar night.

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