val chesterfield is a renowned linguist whose crippling anxiety disorder has forced her to turn down numerous opportunities to study rare languages in the field.
dead languages are her special passion, and her life is quiet, lonely—the act of translation satisfying the frisson of human connection that others derive from a more traditional social life.
I felt safest in my office, alone with my books, charts, runic symbols, and scraps of old text; and when I deciphered a chunk of language—even a word!—a thrill of understanding juddered up my spine. The distance between me and another human being, just for that moment, was erased. It was as if someone were speaking to me, and me alone.
those who cannot travel, teach, and val’s sent many students off on the scholarly linguistical indiana jones adventures she wishes she could pursue. she is finally coaxed out of her academia-swaddled comfort zone by wyatt speeks. the ornery climate researcher is requesting her expertise on a hush-hush project: a young girl’s body was discovered frozen in a glacier off the coast of greenland, hundreds of miles from any known indigenous population. miraculously, she has been thawed out alive, but she is speaking a language no one can decipher.
the offer’s secondary lure is that wyatt is the last person to have seen val’s beloved twin brother andy alive before his inexplicable suicide five months earlier, and val’s nonagenarian father—crankily installed in a nursing home with lung cancer, diabetes, and a grudge against andy’s mentor wyatt—encourages her to buck up and go off to one of the world’s most remote locations to find out what really happened to his favorite twin.
it’s set in nuunyviak—an uninhabited island off the northwest coast of greenland—where val, wyatt, and the girl named sigrid wedge themselves into tiny buildings made insignificant against the massive nothingness of nature along with the mechanic/cook jeanne, and the married polar marine scientists nora and raj chandra-revard (who offset everyone else’s gloomy loneliness with their chirp chirpy-love). val makes some progress in communicating with the girl, but the endeavor goes from “interesting academic pursuit” to “matter of great urgency” when sigrid starts getting sick and val can’t figure out what sigrid is so desperately trying to get across in order to save her.
it’s atmospherically superb—as claustrophobic inside the research facility as it is outside, although it’s too slow-paced to be the thriller it claims to be. there’s a pretty significant action sequence chonk at the end—so cold and harrowing, however, the story has a softer, more emotional texture than a typical thriller; containing themes of grief and healing, of forming a connection to the earth and to other people, of love, nature and vulnerability, and a leetle touch of magic.
there’s also a lot of lovely, lovely language stuff
The word in Inuktitut for climate change translates to “a friend acting strangely”—what a personal and beautiful way of describing a relationship to the natural world.
but also a reminder about how bewilderingly complex language can be, flashing my dusty brain back to my ONE undergrad linguistics class:
I’d forgotten the complexity of West Greenlandic, which is a polysynthetic language, meaning the words are composed of multiple elements called morphemes, word parts that often created “sentence-words”—the longest of which is over 200 letters long. Nouns were inflected for one of eight cases and for possession. Eight moods as well as the number and gender of both the sentence’s subject and object inflected every verb. Countless subdialects sprang like weeds. On top of this, most things had two names, the common one and the word used for outsiders—white people, called Qallunaat—to confuse them.
i mean, it’s a wonder any of us can communicate with anyone anywhere anytime but it does make me feel better about writing such an inarticulate review.
the takeaway here is that i need to be sent off to the arctic circle in a tiny little hut so everyone will leave me alone and i can just get things done.