As the winter approaches the northern hemisphere, novelist Amy Sackville shares her favourite books about one of Earths remaining wildernesses

Ice is just cold, solid water, of course; essential for cocktails, and the survival of the planet. One-tenth of Earths land surface is covered in it, and up to 15% of the ocean for part of the year; one quarter of the land has ice buried in it year round. This unique substance volatile, ancient, quick, slow, frightening and beautiful creates spaces at the reaches of the earth and of the imagination that we cant resist returning to. It invites simile. It slips out of our grasp.

Tarjei Vesaass unsettling and lovely novel The Ice Palace, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan, tells the story of an intense, half-understood bond between Siss and Unn, two schoolgirls. Full of longing and desire, full of the unknown, it is as dream-like and powerful as the frozen waterfall at its centre. Unn is lost, enchanted and disoriented by the chambers of this palace, by turns hostile and magnificent, and far too cold.

Another short, strange novel of the 60s, Anna Kavans Ice is more nightmare than dream. It is set in a world of nameless, ruined cities, freezing seas and dark forests, in which some obscure disaster has precipitated environmental collapse. Communication is failing, the media cant be trusted, conflict is rife, and ice is closing in, destroying everything in its path. The book falls somewhere between compelling spy thriller and cold war Kafka there are overcoats, paranoia, police states and a white-haired girl that the narrator is senselessly pursuing

A dog team near the ice-bound British National Antarctic Expedition ship RRS Discovery, circa 1903. The expedition was led by Robert Falcon Scott. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Accounts of polar expeditions are typically preoccupied by the impossible task of describing the infinite forms and variety, as well as the overwhelming magnitude, of the ice. The poles are the perfect realms in which to find the sublime. Francis Spuffords first book, I May Be Some Time, traces the history of polar exploration and its place in the cultural imagination, in particular the attempts by explorers such as William Parry, John Franklin and Robert Falcon Scott to capture their experience. The book moves towards a vivid and chilling re-creation of that fateful expedition and those famous last words.

Joanna Kavennas The Ice Museum is another work of non-fiction that pursues the idea of a remote, half-imagined north. Kavenna writes brilliantly about bleak, inhospitable places, and about the dangerous ideologies that can be written on the seeming blank page of a lost northern land Thule has a place in Nazi mythology as the home of the Aryan race. She meets people who are struggling at the edges of the ice: displaced Inuit in Greenland, and environmental scientists on Svalbard, who measure the melting ice.

Barry Lopezs seminal work of nature writing Arctic Dreams finds his exacting, luminous prose focusing on the landscape of the north, the animals that live there and the peoples who populate it, on the complex beauty of the ways that life and landscape co-exist, and the fragility of that compact. The magnificent chapter Ice and Light is a study of the formation, appearance and varieties of Arctic ice. Written in the 1980s, this is a gorgeous yet austere, unsentimental book, which offers a prescient warning about human complacency towards Earths remaining wilderness.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville is published by Granta.



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