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Girl in Ice

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About The Book

New York Times Editors’ Choice * Los Angeles Times Best Crime Novels of Winter 2022 * Reader’s Digest Best Fiction Books of 2022

From the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle comes 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.


Valerie “Val” Chesterfield is a linguist trained in the most esoteric of disciplines: dead Nordic languages. Despite her successful career, she leads a sheltered life and languishes in the shadow of her twin brother, Andy, an accomplished climate scientist stationed on a remote island off Greenland’s barren coast. But Andy is gone: a victim of suicide, having willfully ventured unprotected into 50 degree below zero weather. Val is inconsolable—and disbelieving. She suspects foul play.

When Wyatt, Andy’s fellow researcher in the Arctic, discovers a scientific impossibility­—a young girl frozen in the ice who thaws out alive, speaking a language no one understands—Val is his first call. Will she travel to the frozen North to meet this girl, and try to comprehend what she is so passionately trying to communicate? Under the auspices of helping Wyatt interpret the girl’s speech, Val musters every ounce of her courage and journeys to the Artic to solve the mystery of her brother’s death.

The moment she steps off the plane, her fear threatens to overwhelm her. The landscape is fierce, and Wyatt, brilliant but difficult, is an enigma. But the girl is special, and Val’s connection with her is profound. Only something is terribly wrong; the child is sick, maybe dying, and the key to saving her lies in discovering the truth about Wyatt’s research. Can his data be trusted? And does it have anything to do with how and why Val’s brother died? With time running out, Val embarks on an incredible frozen odyssey—led by the unlikeliest of guides—to rescue the new family she has found in the most unexpected of places.

Excerpt

Chapter One one
Seeing the name “Wyatt Speeks” in my inbox hit me like a physical blow. Everything rushed back: the devastating phone call, the disbelief, the image of my brother’s frozen body in the Arctic wasteland.

I shut my laptop, pasted a weak smile on my face. There would be no bursting into tears at school. Grief was for after hours, for the nightly bottle of merlot, for my dark apartment, for waking on the couch at dawn, the blue light of the TV caressing my aching flesh.

No, at the moment my job was to focus on the fresh, eager face of my graduate student as she petitioned for a semester in Tibet, a project in a tiny village deep in the Himalayas accessible only via treacherous mountain passes on foot and maybe yak, all to decipher a newly discovered language. As I listened to her impassioned plea—trying to harness my racing heart—an old shame suffused me.

The truth was, I’d never embarked into the field anyplace more frightening than a local graveyard to suss out a bit of Old English carved into a crumbling stone marker. And even then I made sure to go in broad daylight, because dead people—even underground—frightened me too. Never had my curiosity about a place or a language and its people overridden my just say no reflex. Citing schedule conflicts, I’d declined a plum semester-long gig in the Andean mountains of Peru to study quipu, or “talking knots”—cotton strings of differing lengths tied to a cord carried from village to village by runners, each variation in the string signaling municipal facts: taxes paid or owed; births and deaths; notices of famine, drought, crop failure, plague, and so on. I’d even passed on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to deconstruct a language carved into the two-thousand-year-old Longyou caves in Quzhou, China.

Why?

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.

Ironically, I was the one with the power to give or withhold the stamp of approval for my students’ research trips, as if I were any judge of risk and character. Watching the glistening eyes of the young woman before me, one of my favorite students, I stalled a few moments—tossing out a couple of insipid questions about her goals—an attempt to soak up her magic normalcy. No such luck. I signed off on her trip to Tibet wondering, How does she see me, really? I knew she was fond of me, but—that casual wave of her silver-braceleted hand as she turned to leave, that look in her eye! I swear I caught a glint of pity, of disdain. It was like she knew my secret. Her teacher was a fraud.

I’M A LINGUIST. I can get by in German and most Romance tongues, and I’ve got a soft spot for dead languages: Latin, Sanskrit, ancient Greek. But it’s the extinct tongues—Old Norse and Old Danish—that enrapture me.

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 romantic 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.

Though words came easily for me, I tended to miss the patterns that were staring me in the face. The fact that my ex genuinely wanted out didn’t hit me until divorce papers were served. The fact of my father passing from just old to genuinely ill with lung cancer and not-here-for-much-longer didn’t sink in until I was packing up the family home and found myself on my knees in tears, taken down by dolor repentino, a fit of sudden pain. The stark realization that my twin brother, Andy—the closest person in the world to me—had been pulling away for months came to me only after his death and at the very worst times: lecturing in an auditorium packed with students, conversing with the dean in the hallway. When it happened, these vicious, sudden, psychic stabs, I’d briefly close my eyes or turn away to cough, repeating to myself: sokaparayana, sokaparayana, until I could speak again.

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.

For two decades, these glimmers of connection had been enough to sustain me, but over time, they began to lose their shine. These private revelations no longer fed me, warmed me like they had. I yearned to be drawn closer to the human heart. Not through words—however telling or ingenious—but in the living world.

AT PRECISELY EIGHT o’clock that night—the end of office hours—I got up and locked the door. Squared my shoulders, smoothed my skirt, and sat back down. Outside my window, remorseless late-August sun cast long shadows across the drought-singed grass of the quad.

I clicked open my email. The subject line was blank, but then, Wyatt had never bothered with niceties. My head pounded with end-of-summer-session exhaustion. I was in no mood to hear from Professor Speeks about my brother, his fond recollections of mentoring Andy through the rigors of grad school, or even some funny thing Andy had said or done during their year together on the ice.

I considered deleting the message without reading it, but a tingling buzzed my fingers. Something said: Don’t. Still, I resisted until some darker knowledge swarmed up from the base of my spine, warning me it would be a terrible mistake not to open it.

From: Wyatt.Speeks@ArcticGreenlandScience.org

To: VChesterfield@Brookview.edu

Hey Val, hope you’re doing well, all things considered. Something’s happened out here. We found a body in the ice out on Glacier 35A. A young girl. We were able to cut through the ice and bring her back to the compound. Val, she thawed out alive. Don’t ask me to explain it, I can’t. She’s eight, nine years old, I’m guessing. And she’s talking pretty much nonstop, but in a language I’ve never heard before. Even Pitak, our supply runner from Qaanaaq, had no idea, and he speaks Inuktun. Jeanne’s stumped, too, so we’re both just keeping the girl fed and nodding our heads a lot and trying to figure out what to do next.

I’ve pasted here one of her vocalizations. Maybe you can figure out what she’s saying? You’re the expert. Give it a try, then call me as soon as you can. And please don’t tell anyone about this.

Wyatt

The MP3 stuttered across my screen like a city skyline. The girl thawed out alive?

Sweat bloomed on my brow, even though the air conditioner was blasting. I got up, walked to my window, sat back down. Checked the time: too early for a pill. I knocked back the remaining swallow of stale coffee in my mug, rattled open my file drawer, extracted a bottle of Amaretto, and filled the cup halfway. The sweet, warm alcohol hit my empty stomach fast. Smoothed away the sharp edges.

I thought about all the times I’d let Andy’s voice play in my head these past five months, how he was still so alive for me in this way. Memories of us as kids chasing each other through the lake house in upstate New York, T-shirts still damp from swimming. Or cozied up with our beloved mutt Frida, playing go fish and Monopoly while our parents got tight and happy on cocktails: a rare glimmer of joy during their disintegrating marriage. And so we were comforted, sharing the delusion that if we were just good enough, they would stay together.

Little by little I’d pored over the photos, letting myself “feel everything,” as my shrink instructed. Mourning every shirt and shoe, I gave away or got rid of his clothes and belongings; though, there were a few I couldn’t part with, his drawings especially. The only other place he lived on was in my phone: a dozen saved messages remained.

Now, on my screen, the forward arrow on the voice clip throbbed red. My finger trembled as it hovered over the play button. I steadied it, pushing down.

The first slam to my gut was the panic in this high, sweet girl voice that—even if you didn’t understand a word she said—made you want to reach out and wrap her in a hug. The tremulous ache in her utterly foreign words only intensified in the twenty-eight-second clip, as if she was pleading for something. I tried to picture this child trapped in the ice, to imagine what horrors had brought her there.

I played it again.

What language is this?

Of course, West Greenlandic was my first guess, but I heard no correlation. It wasn’t Danish, either—Greenland had been settled by Danes—but no, this was Danish put through a blender and mixed with what, Finnish? Not quite that, either. The vowels were too long, the accent on the last syllable. It wasn’t Norwegian, clearly, and it was too clipped and choppy to be Swedish. I pulled up some Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and listened alongside the girl’s quavering voice. The cadences were similar in places, but I couldn’t match up a single word. This language was completely new to me.

I was lost.

I listened again.

And again.

My face grew hot. Breath clouding the screen, I leaned in close, as if proximity might help.

Nothing—all I understood was raw emotion.

I sat back. Tried to recall all I knew linguistically about where Wyatt was—where Andy had died.

Three main dialects of Greenlandic were spoken in Greenland: West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, and Inuktun, which had only about a thousand native speakers. In grad school, I’d been fascinated by this culture built from animal skin, sinew, bone, stone, snow, and ice, but in the end, I became more of a generalist. I deciphered languages quickly—given enough context and clues.

I got up and paced, holding my drink. The reality was, I didn’t have to do anything. I could pretend I never opened the email. Ignore Wyatt’s calls. All I wanted was to crawl back home and hide with my booze and my misery and never come out.

If only I hadn’t heard her voice! I could have forgotten the whole thing. But even after the clip stopped playing I could still hear her, feel the sound, a high thrum in my jaw. Talking to Wyatt—even emailing him—brought back all the horror with Andy, but who was this girl? And why no picture or video—was there something he didn’t want me to see? I turned, taking stock of the four walls of my tiny world. My achingly familiar posters, bookshelves, knickknacks—even my framed honors and awards—both comforted and repulsed me. It’s just a phone call, Val, I thought. For the love of God, you can do this.

I knocked back the rest of my Amaretto and picked up the landline to dial Wyatt halfway around the world at his climate research station on Taararmiut Island, translated “land of shadows,” off Greenland’s northwest coast. Already my palm was slick with sweat as I listened to the odd dud-dud-dud of the international call. If it wasn’t too cloudy, and the antennae hadn’t been ripped away by the near constant fifty-mile-per-hour winds, the satellite call would go through, and there would be simply no going back.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Girl in Ice includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

Valerie Chesterfield is a linguist trained in the most esoteric of disciplines: dead Nordic languages. Despite Val’s successful career, she leads a sheltered life and languishes in the shadow of her twin brother, Andy, an accomplished climate scientist stationed on a remote island off Greenland’s barren coast. But Andy is gone: He willfully ventured unprotected into fifty degrees below zero weather. Val is inconsolable; suicide is the easy conclusion—but she suspects foul play.

When Wyatt, Andy’s fellow researcher in the Arctic, discovers a scientific impossibility—a young girl frozen in the ice who thaws out alive, speaking a language no one understands—Val is his first call. Will she travel to the frozen North, meet this girl, and try to comprehend what she is so passionately trying to communicate? Under the guise of helping Wyatt interpret the girl’s speech, Val musters every ounce of her courage and journeys to the Arctic to solve the mystery of her brother’s death.

The moment she steps off the plane, fear threatens to overwhelm her. The landscape is fierce, and Wyatt, brilliant but difficult, is an enigma. The girl, however, is special, and Val’s connection with her is profound. But something is terribly wrong; the child is sick, maybe dying, and the key to saving her lies in discovering the truth about Wyatt’s research. Can his data be trusted? Does it have anything to do with how and why Val’s brother died? With time running out, Val embarks on an incredible frozen odyssey—led by the unlikeliest of guides—to rescue the new family she has found in the most unexpected of places.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. At the start of the novel, Val is confined to her personal bubble by choice, whereas her father is confined by old age and the inability to take care of himself, let alone travel. We also see Val and her father butt heads over what they each think happened to Andy. How does this family relationship influence Val’s mindset at the beginning of her journey? Is she traveling to get out of her bubble, to find out the truth about Andy’s death, or to prove something to her father? Could it be all three?

2. In a flashback scene, Andy is adamant about refusing to have children due to a sense of climate change fatalism. He does not want to bring children into what he sees as a doomed world with a failing environment. How does this desire to protect potential children from the dangers of climate change connect to Val’s decision to fly to Greenland to help Sigrid? Do these attitudes from the two siblings toward helpless children seem to match or diverge? Do you share Andy’s concerns about how the world is changing for future generations?

3. Sigrid responds emphatically to chocolate and communicates via drawing pictures when she doesn’t respond to toys, new clothes, Val’s languages, etc. What are ways we can communicate with one another that don’t involve speech? What would your version of the chocolate bar be if you were in an unfamiliar and scary situation like Sigrid’s?

4. “The word in Inuktun for climate change translates to ‘a friend acting strangely’—what a personal and beautiful way of describing a relationship to the natural world” (page 24). The setting of the Arctic almost acts as its own character throughout Girl in Ice, informing many of the characters’ decisions, impulses, and actions. Discuss each character’s relationship to the Arctic.

5. During the ice storm, all of the characters are stuck in the main house with one another. There is an irony in being trapped in a room with several people while stationed in total isolation. The stress of this proximity leads to rising tensions between Wyatt and Val and results in Wyatt and Jeanne forcibly drawing blood from Sigrid. How did your perceptions of Wyatt and Jeanne change at this turning point in the story? Discuss how Val is increasingly wary and distrustful of Wyatt from this point forward. Does Sigrid’s fear toward Wyatt and Jeanne actually advance her relationship with Val? With Nora and Raj?

6. Girl in Ice is told entirely through Val’s perspective. If you could read the book through another character’s eyes, whose would it be? How might each of the characters describe one another and the setting of the Arctic, and how would these ideas differ from Val’s perceptions of her surroundings? For example, Val finds the Arctic desolate and unforgiving, while Sigrid loves being outside in the cold. How would Sigrid’s perception of her environment differ from Val’s?

7. Each of the characters seems to be in Greenland to cope with death. Val has recently lost her brother, Jeanne has lost her husband and daughter, and Nora and Raj have lost their infant son. Even Wyatt is dealing with cancer and facing his own impending death. How can a new environment help us gain perspective on our problems? How can seeking out a new environment backfire on us?

8. Jeanne is loyal to Wyatt even when he mistreats her and insults her behind her back to the other characters. She even intentionally sabotages his research to try and keep him from leaving the Arctic and her with it. Why might Jeanne go along with his violence, abuse, and scheming throughout the novel, and what do you think causes her to finally turn her back on him? Does she turn against him for her own sake, or for Val and Sigrid’s?

9. At what point did you start to suspect Wyatt of being responsible for Andy’s death? Do you think that Val became suspicious of Wyatt soon enough, or was she in denial? What do we know about Val that can help us understand why she kept herself from seeing a painful truth?

10. Did you theorize about Andy’s death or the mystery of Sigrid thawing out alive while reading? Discuss what you thought might have happened to Andy or how Sigrid could have thawed out from the ice alive. Were you surprised by the ending?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Who would you like to see cast in a movie or TV adaptation of Girl in Ice?

2. The characters in the book, especially Wyatt and Jeanne, have had to eat mostly canned, dried, frozen, or reconstituted fare flown over from the mainland at great expense. In one scene, they name a few fresh foods that they crave after having spent more than a year on the research base. What fresh foods would you miss the most if you found yourself in a similar situation?

3. Sigrid and Val overcome a sharp learning curve due to their inability to understand each other’s speech patterns and language. Spend five minutes with your group trying to communicate without speaking, then discuss the experience. Can you better relate to Val and Sigrid as characters struggling with communication?

4. After learning what the challenges of living in the Arctic can be like, look into supporting Indigenous groups in Greenland. Some resources include the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs page on Indigenous peoples in Greenland, or Oceans North, which aims to spread awareness about the conserving the marine environment and coastal lands in collaboration with Indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

5. What parallels in Sigrid’s ancient society do you see in the world today, in terms of competing for resources deemed more and more precious due to climate change?

About The Author

Photograph by Kate Hannon

Erica Ferencik is the award-winning author of the acclaimed thrillers The River at NightInto the Jungle, and Girl in Ice, which The New York Times Book Review declared “hauntingly beautiful.” Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press (March 1, 2022)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982143022

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Raves and Reviews

"In Ferencik’s supple, dazzling novel, Val Chesterfield, a Massachusetts-based linguist with a passion for dead Nordic tongues, tumbles into a perilous Arctic maze that wends back and forth to her own troubled psyche... As the pieces click together, she finds herself at the edge of a menacing Arctic twilight, yearning for connection and her comfort zone: '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.'" —Oprah Daily

Girl in Ice is a lot of things: a psychological suspense novel, a linguistic thriller and a scientific puzzle . . . Ferencik describes the Arctic topography with a poet’s awe, and some of her set-pieces—the procession of a huge herd of caribou, an Arctic dive gone badly awry—are breathtaking... A singular sensation.” Wall Street Journal

"Hauntingly beautiful... Girl In Ice uses the subtleties of translation to draw us into different worlds and ways of thinking." —Sarah Lyall, New York Times Book Review

"Known for immersing herself in challenging environments, Ferencik infuses every page with her research in the fjords of Greenland (where the Inuktun word for climate change translates to 'a friend acting strangely'). That plus a writer’s eye for the telling detail have produced some of the most original thriller writing about Arctic environments since Peter Høeg’s 1993 novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As science-driven thriller and probing exploration of fear, language and family bonds, Girl in Ice will not be easily forgotten." Los Angeles Times, "7 Best Crime Novels of Winter 2022"

“An excellent, thrilling mystery . . . With its fascinating science and compelling characters (one or more of whom may be a murderer), Girl in Ice demands to be read in one sitting.” BookPage (starred review)

“Exemplary... Trenchant details about catastrophic climate change bolster a creative plot featuring authentic characters... Ferencik outdoes Michael Crichton in the convincing way she mixes emotion and science.”  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The story evokes a palpable sense of foreboding and becomes increasingly ominous as it highlights the power of nature—and of human emotion. Original, intense, powerful, disturbing, and utterly mesmerising, this one, which evokes Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book.” Booklist (starred review)

"Kayaking between icebergs, Ferencik is fascinated by survival stories." —The Boston Globe

"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... The mysteries are many-layered and intriguing ." Criminal Element

Girl In Ice is a novel of secrets. It is also an allegory for what human beings are doing to the natural world and the terrifying possibility that Mother Nature might one day strike back in unpredictable ways. All in all, this is a memorable and literally chilling read.” —BookReporter

“An inherently fascinating and deftly crafted novel by an author with a remarkable flair for imaginative, compelling, and narrative driven storytelling, Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik will prove to be an immediately popular and enduringly prized addition to community library contemporary Mystery/Suspense collections.” —Midwest Book Review

“Whether I was desperate to solve a mystery, marveling at a beautifully described part of the northern scenery, or absorbing some fascinating tidbit of knowledge, this book held me rapt from start to end. Already one of my favorite books of next year, I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.” —Fiona Cook, Mystery and Suspense magazine

“I knew little about linguistics or the Arctic until I read Erica Ferencik's fascinating book. Her style is fast, impossible to put down, and the landscape is beautifully written. This is my first Ferencik book; it will not be the last.” —Connie L. Eaton, Three Sisters Books & Gifts, Indie Next citation

“Mysterious, anxiety-inducing and with a touch of magic, Girl in Ice is a wonderfully unique thriller that’s literally bone chilling.  Erica Ferencik has delivered a nerve-wracking thriller that will have you shivering on the edge of your seat.” Steve Netter, Best Thriller Books

"This dark, suspenseful, visceral thriller combines the pressing issue of our time—human destruction of the environment—with a gripping and beautifully written mystery set in the frigid far reaches of the Arctic Circle. Unflinching, devastating but ultimately hopeful, Girl in Ice grabbed me and didn’t let me go until the very last page." —A. J. Banner, #1 Amazon, USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestselling author

“With its jaw-dropping premise, unique locale, and great emotional depth, Ferencik’s latest adventure thriller is riveting from the first page to the last.” —Robyn Harding, bestselling author of The Perfect Family

“Uniquely imagined in a spectacularly unforgettable setting that simultaneously filled me with wondrous awe and absolute terror. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.” —Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Remember

“Ferencik’s beautifully written suspense chiller held me in its icy grip and wouldn’t let go. Meticulously researched, rich in scientific detail and Inuit folklore, this moving human story is one you won’t soon forget.” Catherine Burns, author of The Visitors

“This fiercely intelligent thriller delivers an ice-cold shot of adrenaline. Erica Ferencik takes the reader on an unforgettable ride through the Arctic where the menace of the starkly beautiful landscape is matched by that of the human psyche.” —Lexie Elliott, author of The French Girl, The Missing Years and How to Kill Your Best Friend

"This gorgeous, captivating thriller sets a dangerous, precious environment against an inner landscape of grief and longing. Moving, provocative, and breathlessly entertaining, this journey lingers long after the last page is turned." —Kassandra Montag, author of After the Flood

“An arctic location, a dead language, and a mysterious girl: the combination of these three things made Girl in Ice a must-read for me. Ferencik's descriptions are so powerful I feel as if I've experienced the frigid, uncanny dreamscape of Greenland. I was in Val's head, seeing the wonders and terrors through her eyes, fully attuned to her introverted existence. This haunting tale of love and obsession is peppered with lines so beautiful and profound that sometimes I had to stop and catch my breath.” —Zoje Stage, USA Today and internationally bestselling author of Baby Teeth and Getaway

"A propulsive, utterly unforgettable, jaw-dropping thriller.” —The Patriot-Ledger

"One of those rare thrillers that stays with you long after you've finished it, in large part because of a blisteringly original premise. As much a psychological thriller as a survival tale, Girl on Ice resonates on multiple levels, establishing a unique template that makes it a great read." Providence Journal

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