Book Review: Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik

From the Erica Ferencik, author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle, comes Girl in Ice, a harrowing new thriller set in the unforgiving landscape of the Arctic Circle, as a brilliant linguist struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her twin brother ventures hundreds of miles north to try to communicate with a young girl who has been thawed from the ice alive.

Val Chesterfield has always been the introverted twin, the subdued one. Compared to her brother Andy, her whole existence has been quietly domestic. She’s dedicated herself to a semi-cloistered life in the halls of academia, studying diverse and dead languages, while gregarious, gorgeous Andy traveled around the world following his passion for climate science, in the hopes of finding a way to save the planet. It‘s never been about a lack of travel opportunity for her, either. Val has turned down plenty of field work because she suffers quietly from

Anxiety: the crippling kind. I’m tethered to the familiar, the safe, or what I perceive as safe. I function normally in only a handful of locations: my apartment, most places on campus—excluding the football stadium, too much open space—the grocery store, my father’s nursing home. During my inaugural trip to the new, huge, and sparkly Whole Foods—chilled out on a double dose of meds—a bird flew overhead in the rafters. All I could think was, When is it going to swoop down and peck my eyes out? I never went back.

After Andy dies while working at a remote Greenlandic outpost, her world seems to shrink even further without his adventures for her to vicariously live through. But when his mentor up in the Arctic Circle, Wyatt Speeks, sends her a message asking for her help, Val is caught between the anxiety that weighs her down and her genuine desire not only to preserve Andy’s legacy but also to use her very specialized skill set to help a vulnerable young girl.

For Wyatt has sent her the voice recording of a girl he’s found, who’s clearly in distress and also clearly speaking in a language Val has never heard before. While Val is familiar with a wide-ranging variety of languages, her specialty is in the Nordic, whether living or dead. The things the girl is saying, however, are incomprehensible not only to Val but also to the local guide the arctic outpost has hired to bring in supplies. Wyatt begs Val to come and see if she can use her skills to help figure out what the clearly terrified and disoriented girl is saying. Val, after all, knows better than anyone the value of communication:

Languages reveal what it is to be human. This desire to make ourselves understood is primal. We make marks on paper, babble snippets of sound–then agree, by way of miracle–that these scribblings or syllables actually mean something, all so we can touch each other in some precise way. Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love, from the particular love of a new mother for her baby to one for unrequited love, but it has twice as many for grief. My favorite is sokaparayana, which means “wholly given up to sorrow.” A strange balm of a word, gentle coming off my tongue. 

Even if Val doesn’t believe Wyatt’s story about finding the girl frozen in ice and thawing her out – or his hypothesis that she must be hundreds of years old, all scientific impossibilities—Val’s certain that she’s the person most capable of helping the girl communicate with the baffled people around her. Plus, going to the Arctic will hopefully help Val find closure with her brother’s death, which she still can’t believe was a suicide. Armed with anti-anxiety pills and her formidable language skills, Val makes the arduous trek… only to discover that flying north is only the beginning of an ordeal that will change her life forever.

This literary speculative fiction thriller not only tackles issues of language and first-contact colonialism, as well as climate change and what we’re doing to the planet, but also what it means to overcome your greatest fears in order to do the right thing. At its heart is the little girl that Val and the staff of the Arctic Circle outpost are trying to get through to, though more than one person has their own ulterior motives for learning how to communicate with her and discovering the truth behind her unusual circumstances. The mysteries are many-layered and intriguing as Val navigates a forbidding landscape of bleak cold and low survivability in order to protect her young charge, while unearthing the dark truths lurking in the heart of the place that claimed her brother’s life and could, if she isn’t careful, claim hers as well.

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