Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is an ambitious book. Set in the untamed Alaskan wilds at the end of the 19th century, the story follows the expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, a decorated war hero, and his small group of men as they navigate a seemingly impassable river—while simultaneously exploring the challenges that face Forrester’s wife, Sophie, as she waits more than a year for her husband’s return. It’s a clever and fertile juxtaposition—an explorer’s struggles in the wide-open wilderness, and the struggles of his independent young wife back home, in the closed-off, socially restrictive world of 1880s Army barracks life.
Ivey’s novel is largely presented through Sophie’s and Allen’s diaries, discovered a century after the fact by a distant descendant, and through other relics of the expedition: photographs, artifacts with their label-like descriptions (“A drinking cup, Army insignia, much used, otherwise in good condition”) and letters. This is what I would call Museum Exhibit Realism—the form of presentation wherein the story is framed by supposed artifacts. For me, these fictional constructions—these wooden cues to “authenticity”—are somewhat gimmicky, facile. Reading it felt like I was wandering into a museum tour for children led by a docent with an over-loud voice
The diary form, though helpful in some ways, constrains Ivey in others. Colonel Forrester, always the gentleman officer, cannot help but become a bit repetitious and tiresome as he struggles to report, again and again, the fatigue he feels at the end of the day or his concern for his men. And Sophie is just an all-too-consistent fount of Victorian enthusiasm for nature (not to mention surprisingly enlightened views about race and gender). To her credit, Ivey makes an interesting choice—Sophie not only miscarries, she also learns she cannot have children. Her grief, her slow construction of a conception of herself as someone who will find a meaningful life elsewhere, is masterfully done.
Is the story now of a genuinely magical world? Or is this mere hallucination brought on by exhaustion?
But it is in Allen’s expedition that the more ambitious parts of the story emerge. As the group ventures ever deeper into the remote wilderness, Ivey flirts with a kind of magic realism: A soon-to-be-born baby is found, tied via a root umbilical cord, to a large tree on a snowy plain; an Indian woman appears to have feathers rather than skin on her forearm. These episodes are of course related through Forrester’s “Egad!” incredulity, and the reader (one feels, like the author) is left quite unsure what to make of them. Is the story now of a genuinely magical world? Or is this mere hallucination brought on by exhaustion?
Far stronger is the climax of the narrative. The colonel and his men spend a harrowing night in a blasted landscape seemingly harried by malevolent spirits. The creepiness of the experience is beautifully done, and here the ambiguity surrounding the reality of it all is fine. Perhaps this is all in the colonel’s head; it remains a great nightmare all the same. The book’s attempt at spiritualism is flimsy; it does not stay faithful to its effort and so cannot quite pull it off.
With material this rich, there are some very engaging moments and real rewards for the reader. But Ivey makes choices in the telling of her tale that either unduly constrain or undermine the thrust of her story. The overall result is an overlong, often too predictable novel with some very successful moments. To the Bright Edge of the World is at its strongest when it focuses on the psychological strengths and limits of its characters; it wavers in conviction and power when it ventures into a tepid, made-up world beyond the bright edge of nature.
Photo: Stephen Nowers