The History of Mr Polly by H.G. Wells

Mr Polly

First Published: 1910 (Penguin Classics ed. 2005)
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “A weakly wilful being struggling to get obdurate things round impossible corners – in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself and all the trouble of humanity.”

Many of Wells’ works feature quite ordinary narrators grappling to make sense of the events around them. It’s a formula that applies neatly to the science fiction plots  –  or scientific romances as he called them – for which he is most renowned. Yet this struggle to make sense of a changed or changing world need not always involve Martian tripods or trips to other planets. Wells’ social fiction turns the spotlight on his own society, offering a  glimpse of lower middle-class Edwardian life – in equal parts charming and cutting – and of the quiet desperation of those who try to navigate through its social, financial and education minefields in the name of “getting on.”

Like Wells’ KippsThe History of Mr Polly focuses on the drudgery of an apprenticeship in the drapery trade, a profession Wells had experienced first hand and which could very well have been his life if he had not succeeded as a writer.  The novel begins in media res with the eponymous Alfred Polly in his thirties barely treading water in a sea of debt and regret saddled with a wife he does not love and a failing business he lacks the passion or acumen to save. Wells then tracks back to his protagonist’s childhood, detailing the circumstances that propelled Mr Polly into his current mire, before chronicling the extreme measures he finally – if haphazardly – takes to escape it. As this brief synopsis suggests, Polly is far from being a a conventional hero. His is a stunted existence, as Wells writes:

Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and wrapped about and entangled like a creature born in the jungle who has never seen sea or sky.

Yet, if hardly admirable, Polly is  far from unsympathetic – painted as he is with affectionately bitter-sweet brush-strokes. Partly, this is because regret is universal: I’m sure that most adults can relate to his “where did it all go wrong” malaise even if  (hopefully) only fleetingly.  But Polly is also an enjoyable protagonist because of his engaging combination of naivety and bluster. Failed by the education system (a prime target for Wells’ needling in this and other works) Polly nonetheless has a passion for language and a way with words that is uniquely his own. His frequent neologisms are a true delight and a key ingredient of this novel’s charm: “Sorry,” said Mr. Polly, “if I am intrudaceous. I didn’t know you didn’t want me to be here.” In a work that deals with dark themes: regret, hopelessness, even suicide, it is surprising how the overall tone remains comic. This is likely a reflection of Polly himself. As suggested by his linguistic quirks, which he retains to the end, Polly does not really develop as a character: he muddles through, enduring rather than adapting. This could make for depressing reading but in the skilful hands of a Wells the tone remains comic throughout, blackly comic, but comic all the same. 

While, not my favourite of Well’s novels by any means (that accolade belongs to the sublime Tono Bungay) The History of Mr Polly is still an enjoyable read that transitions pleasingly from social realism to timeless pastoral. With its focus on cycles of change and regret, and how a new start and happiness is achievable for even the most entrenched and clueless mortal – albeit through some desperate, surprising and unlikely methods – this is also a fitting choice for a new year novel.

And on that note, I’d like to wish a very Happy New Year to all my blog followers here. Thanks for sticking with me through what has been a quiet month post-wise. I’ve got a backlog of reviews to write and hope to catch up soon….

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The Abominable by Dan Simmons

The Abominable

Published: 2013 by Sphere
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote:This altitude is not of this world, I think dully. We humans are not meant or evolved to be up here, I think, with some small sense of panic stirring in me. At the same time, a totally contradictory thought rises to the surface: I’m meant to be here. I’ve waited all my life for this.

Imagine, if you will, purchasing a cinema ticket to see The Thing (John Carpenter’s original, not the inferior remake), only to find as the lighting dims instead that you’ve somehow wandered instead into a screening of Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, not that abysmal Crystal Skull sequel). Stay for the ride anyway and you’re sure to enjoy a classic action adventure,  overblown but thrilling and fun all the same. A good evening out, for sure, yet the nagging feeling may persist that it isn’t quite what you signed up for. Dan Simmons’ latest novel offers an analogous experience: I loved it, but the blurb, the advertising buzz around it, even the cover, all seem to pitch this as a spiritual successor to Simmons’ 2007 novel The Terror – setting up expectations for a very different kind of novel from the one that is actually delivered.

Certainly there are similarities between the two novels. Both tell stories of endurance and the horrors of trying to conquer landscapes that are simply not conducive to human life and both feature brave adventurers from a former time who are woefully ill equipped for the challenges ahead of them. In The Terror, Simmons takes real historical characters and a genuine enigma – the precise fate of Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition – and fills in the blanks with “the Thing on the Ice” a supernatural horror above and beyond the hunger, scurvy, freezing and even cannibalism of more historically grounded theories. The Abominable, meanwhile, engages the question of whether or not Mallory and Irvine successfully reached the summit before their demise during their famous – and fatal – attempt on Everest in 1924. Rather than imaginatively depicting these two notorious climbers themselves, Simmons invents his own group of adventurers following hot on the heels of the Mallory expedition: ostensibly to search for the body of an Englishman who was lost on the mountain around the same time as Mallory, but all the while also harbouring their own aspirations on the summit.

Although the main characters are all fictional, Simmons seems far more concerned here than in The Terror to ground his narrative in reality. The Abominable uses a framing device that is interesting if not entirely convincing to pitch the story as a found document. The introduction features Simmons himself as a character interviewing an aged explorer, Jake Perry, as part of his research for the novel that became The Terror. Although he had travelled in polar regions – he was in Antarctica with Byrd, we learn – Perry’s most powerful reminisces are of his climbing experiences and so, encouraged by his encounter with the professional author, he goes on to record his memories, a manuscript that comprises the rest of the book,

Yet readers who are familiar with Simmons’ work would be left with no doubts that what follows is his own invention. The author’s signature style is abundantly clear here: contrasting scenes of high octane adventure with glacially-paced passages that demonstrate in full his meticulous research. I now know more than I ever needed to about early twentieth-century mountain climbing techniques and the advantages of twelve point crampons over ten point ones. I’ve noted before how Simmons seems reluctant to jettison even the most inconsequential nuggets of historical fact and a harsher editor would surely exorcise much of the repetition of climbing technicalities that occurs here. Yet for all this, The Abominable is a page turner, and kept me gripped from beginning to end. As in Melville’s classic Moby Dick, the slow overly-technical passages consistently serve to intensify the intervening episodes of adventure – and what an adventure that is.

As Susanna Jones has hinted, Mountain climbing must be a close cousin of polar exploration. Particularly in their historical infancy, both exploits leave us marvelling at the inspiring courage of those who attempt them, while simultaneously wondering what madness could lure people to such inhospitable landscapes in the first place. Simmons accentuates this contrast through his lively and fascinating cast: expedition leader “The Deacon” a stalwart veteran both of climbing and combat; likeable Jean-Claude, an Alpine guide whose sunny disposition masks his lingering rage at the horror his French family experienced during the First World War; and Cousin Reggie a privileged tea-plantation owner whose presence on the expedition is a grudgingly accepted condition of its funding, but who turns out to be one of the novel’s best characters.  Against these vividly painted figures, our narrator Jake is something of a cipher. A young American, I felt too often that he existed simply to ask pertinent questions about the simmering state of inter-war European politics.

And there are a lot of politics in The Abominable. Before they even head for the Himalayas we follow the group’s practise climbs and a requisitioning of equipment and information that takes them deep into the heart of a Germany still reeling from defeat, a climate in which a certain National Socialist German Workers Party is rising to prominence. Although the novel does explore mountain lore and Tibetan mythology, it does not – despite the hints of its title and advertising – tread the same routes of supernatural horror as The Terror. Let’s assess the ingredients: a 1920s setting, vast country estates, war heroes, Nazis, an Indian travel odyssey, sometimes uncomfortable talk of Empire, the physical challenge of the climb, and a plucky band of adventurers brought together by the promise conquering an untrodden peak. What Simmons has created here is a classic Boy’s Own adventure; one that is so retro it almost feels refreshing.

Although I enjoyed the tense pursuit of Franklin and his men by the otherworldly Thing, the real Terror in The Terror was not the beast but the Arctic landscape and  the more insidious threats of starvation, freezing and encroaching madness. Simmons pulls a similar trick here: Jake’s memoir is punctuated by powerful observations on the inhospitable heights of Everest: “At and above 8,000 meters, your body is dying – literally dying, more so every minute you stay at such an altitude. The technical term is necrosis.” This is a slowly told tale and though it takes some considerable time for the narrative to even reach Himalayan soil, little by little the group do increase their altitude and as the air thins the tension rockets. Pressure comes from the environment, from social tensions within the group, and from the increasingly mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of their putative target, the lost Lord Bromley. Simmons provokes his readers to reassess what could truly deserve the title “abominable.”

In the novel’s final quarter the tone changes considerably and it becomes an out and out thriller. I have to say I wasn’t fully convinced by the speculative historical sleight of hand that constitutes Simmons’ grand finale but when you reach the top of a roller-coaster there is only one way to go. It’s best not to over think the coming descent, just enjoy the adrenalin rush. After its slow ascent, The Abominable delivers on the same kind of level, and having become so invested in its central characters and their remarkable exploits, at the time I was happy enough to enjoy the ride even if afterwards the doubts gathered. But a mountain is not a roller-coaster and – as Jake’s narrative is at pains to point out – descent can begin at any point of the climb, with adventurers reaching base camp possibly triumphant, possibly defeated, or possibly in a bloodied mess of dismemberment. Will the Deacon’s expedition summit? Will they find Bromley? Might they even find Mallory and Irvine? For all the other threads of intrigue running through this meaty novel it is really these fundamental questions of man versus mountain that power the book, and which kept me turning the pages.

There’s a lot wrong with this book but if you’re not a Simmons virgin then you’ll probably know already what sorts of faults to expect. If you’re willing to forgive these (occasionally through gritted teeth) you can also expect an impressively researched, old-timey adventure that takes you deep into the crevasses and increasingly sheer cliffs of the most famous mountain on Earth. It’s a ride worth taking. Although those who travel purely in search of ice demons may be disappointed.

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MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood


Published: 2013 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away. The dead bodies evaporating like slow smoke; their loved and carefully tended homes crumbling away like deserted anthills. Their bones reverting to calcium; night predators hunting their dispersed flesh, transformed now into grasshoppers and mice.”

I’m a huge Atwood fan and know I’m not alone in ranking this, the final instalment in the trilogy that began a decade ago with Oryx and Crake, as one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year.   With a huge weight of expectation behind it, and a vast dystopian story to somehow conclude so many years after its inception, its also the release that could most easily have proved a disappointment. So I am pleased to report that it was not. While I still rate the first novel as the most powerful of the trilogy – partly perhaps because of the initial shock factor that could never be replicated in its sequels  – MaddAddam provides a sharp, exciting, thought-provoking finale that was also much funnier and, in its own esoteric way, much more hopeful that I’d been expecting.

The novel begins with a recap of the events of the previous two books; a useful refresher but no substitute for reading the novels. Those familiar with the preceding volumes will quickly notice how MaddAddam seems to balance the tone of the trilogy as a whole. Oryx and Crake is the fast-paced masculine-focused big-bang, centred on Jimmy, or “Snowman” who believes he many be the only survivor of a lethal pandemic that has wiped out other humans. Struggling to survive in a hostile environment that is rapidly being reclaimed by nature, Jimmy becomes the caretaker and reluctant prophet of the “Crakers” a group of bioengineered humanoids who were the project of Jimmy’s one time best friend and love rival.  By contrast, book two, The Year of the Flood, is  slower and more expansive:  fleshing out this brave new world by exploring the beliefs of the eco-cult The God’s Gardeners and exploring the disparate experiences of two female survivors, Toby, a senior member of the Gardener’s clan; and Ren an exotic dancer who escapes the contagion in a quarantine cell. With its ensemble cast of surviving Gardeners, MaddAddamites (the bioengineers who assisted Crake in his neohuman project) and the Crakers themselves, the final instalment pulls together the disparate perspectives of its predecessors. In the present tense, the novel explores how the remaining humans try to survive, plundering the wreckage of the old society, preparing for a deadly showdown the murderous Painballers, and trying to make sense of what has happened, both for themselves and for the Crakers.

Storytelling is the central theme in MaddAddam: “People need such stories… because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.” The main story told here is that of Zeb, the hacker, Gardener, outlaw and object of Toby’s desire whose high octane history and relationship to the head of the Gardener’s cult, ties all the other narrative strands together. Toby has taken over from Snowman as the prophet of the Crakers and the novel offers a fascinating contrast between the way Zeb narrates his history to her, and the way she recounts it to this childlike and deeply credulous group. Arduous for Toby, her story-telling sessions are a delight for the reader and here Atwood brilliantly negotiates the knife-edge path between hilarity some deeply serious theological questions:

How to explain to them what “oh fuck” means? They would never believe that the word for copulation could mean something bad: an expression of disgust, an insult, a failure. To them, as far as she can tell, the act is pure joy.

Atwood has insisted, somewhat controversially, that her work is not science fiction but speculative fiction. As she reiterates in her acknowledgements, “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.” While I don’t want to wade into the debate about how much of this assertion is influenced by the perceived lack of mainstream appeal of Sci-Fi as a genre, it certainly struck me, as I was reading, how much more familiar MaddAddam felt than its preceding two volumes. Some of this may reflect my pleasure at returning after so long to familiar characters and to the disturbingly compelling world Atwood has created here. But many of the scenarios and developments she imagines already feel more current than they did a decade ago when I first read Oryx and Crake. For instance, comments on the allure of the unpolished as so-called “reality” shows online become ever more scripted, and the popularity of environmental charities designed to assuage guilt rather than make any genuine impact. Although Toby’s interactions with the Crakers make this a surprisingly funny read, there is much in MaddAddam that remains genuinely frightening because it does feel so possible.

My main criticisms of this novel were in the treatment of some of the female characters who seem somehow reduced from the courageous form they took in the previous novel. Ren, Amanda and even, in places, Toby herself seem less resilient here, more petty in their concerns and more reliant on their men. Atwood seems conscious of this: “Gender roles suck…”  “Then you should stop playing them.” But for all the playfulness of her tone there are some serious undercurrents: does the challenge of survival after the Waterless Flood necessarily reduce women to role of childbearers? There are no easy or comfortable answers here, but for all the horror there is a sense of community, of hope, and a surprising playfulness in this book that was missing from the previous instalments. Perhaps it is inevitable that a greater sense of security – even built on the most fragile of post-apocalyptic foundations – would allow the very human emotion of sexual jealousy to once more rear its head.

Written with verve and passion, MaddAddam is not Atwood’s finest hour but, as a satisfying conclusion to a superb trilogy, it certainly reaffirms its own central message about the redemptive power of the stories we tell. It also reminded me how much I wanted the events Toby and co experience to be fiction and not a dark glimpse of what could lie ahead.

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White by Marie Darrieussecq


Translated from the original French by Ian Monk

Published: 2003 (English translation by Faber and Faber, 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “The absent horizon, lifted away from the ground. The ground and sky now uncertain. But they do not dwell on such matters, avoid awkward subjects, nothing about the anxiety and cravings, about the distance and the madness, about turmoil, nothingness, desire to kill and the fear of dying…”

Nothing. This is a book about nothing, That is to say, it’s about the state of nothingness: “the molecules of nothingness, the whorls of nothingness woven by dust.” It’s about isolation, avoidance, and thoughts left unspoken. There is no direct dialogue. And as you might expect from a work exploring these themes, nothing really happens in terms of plot development. White is like nothing I’ve ever read before, and it’s very hard to write about!

Marie Darrieussecq is a French writer with a unique, poetic voice. English translations of her work have attracted much praise from critics and I can see why. She is a daring word-smith, her imagery abstract, intellectual, onomatopoeic and frequently beautiful. I found myself reading certain sentences over and over, mouthing the words and savouring the language. At the same time it’s clear also why she is far from being a household name here in the UK. Despite being only 150 pages, White is a slow read, abstract to the point of confusion and in places feels straight-up pretentious rather than just artistic. That said, it is an interesting addition to the canon of Antarctic fiction, a novel that is just that, novel in the way it tries to capture the isolation, repetition and ennui of daily routine in one of our planet’s least hospitable climates.

The action – such as it is – is set in the very near future: hologram phones are a reality and the first manned mission to Mars has just been launched, but otherwise the setting feels very contemporary. Darrieussecq’s protagonists, Edmée and Peter, a radio expert and a heating engineer, are both rootless individuals: she born in France, raised in Canada and now living in Texas; he a naturalised Icelander, originally a refugee from an unnamed country. Rootless, but also restless and on the run from personal tragedies that are only gradually revealed. Both are drawn to the ultimate escape of the Mars mission but end up instead in the next most isolated outpost, The White Project, a newly established European base not far from the South Pole. Darrieussecq alternates between passages focusing on these two individuals as they converge on the base, gradually bringing them together in a way that would be clichéd if it weren’t for the way these experiences are delivered. Like an incorporeal Greek chorus, White is narrated by an army of ghosts, the floating, fleeting presences of all those who have died in Antarctica, or dwelt there and left part of them behind. In a landscape where the cold arrests normal processes of decay it’s a powerful image. The ghosts are an undifferentiated mix of modern, historic and animal Antarctic echoes and are free to pass through walls man-made or icy, tent canvas, even through human bodies. They can, it seems, pluck memories from Edmée’s mind, but they cannot always interpret them, hence this novel offers a unique perspective, omnipresent but far from omniscient. “We ghosts know that nothingness is visible only when it is hazy.”

White is less concerned with the practical details of either Antarctic history or modern polar survival than it is with its emotional and intellectual themes. I enjoyed the depiction of both Edmeé and Peter, the idea that they are not fully conscious of the factors that propel them towards the ice and towards each other. I also enjoyed the subtle account of social and sexual tension amongst the White Project inhabitants (where Edmeé is the only woman) and the touching scenes in her radio booth where each individual except the intriguingly aloof Peter makes grainy hologram contact with loved ones back home. Yet Darrieussecq’s bold experimentalism and the evocative power of these scenes do not fully compensate for a few historical howlers (confusing the action of Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions seems pretty unforgivable given that the narrating ghosts were allegedly present at the time). Likewise I am no expert on life in modern Antarctic bases, but even given the vaguely futuristic setting here, some of the practical details just didn’t feel right at all. Certainly not one for the polar train-spotters, then! And the ending also left me with the lingering “oh, is that it” feeling of disappointment – although in a work about Nothing, it was probably wrong to expect otherwise. Yet for all these considerable flaws I can still imagine myself returning to White, dipping in time and again to savour the beauty of its language and boldness of its expression.

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Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Firstly, I must apologise for my unannounced hiatus from book blogging in recent weeks: I’ve been extremely busy with some major projects for my work and I’ve also been away staying my with in-laws (who live in a rather wonderful, grade 2 listed ex-schoolhouse with a tin roof that seemed to block out all connections on my mobile phone!) But now I’m back, with a backlog of recent reads to share with you. And, although I’ll happily tackle icy reads all year long, we’re coming into the best seasons to curl up with a book set in cold climes. So stay tuned for a fair few polar picks, as well as some other reviews….

First up is this:

Darm matter

Published: 2010 by Orion
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Hugo says this is probably how the Catholics imagine purgatory, and maybe he’s right. There’s no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We’ve left the real world, and entered a land of dreams.”

Ghost stories are for life, not just for Halloween, but I do like to ensure that I have something a little bit eerie on the go around the end of October, so this was my choice for 2013. An obvious choice, perhaps: the haunted happenings of Dark Matter take place during a fictional 1930s British expedition to the far reaches of the Svalbard archipelago. The Arctic environs of Spitsbergen are a location with which I have become increasingly fascinated since watching/hearing The Ghost of Piramida and I loved the idea of this remote and forbidding location playing host to the sort of old fashioned Jamesian ghost story that this short novel is often touted to be. Unfortunately, such promise wasn’t quite realised: for me at least, the more supernatural aspects of the narrative never quite hit the right tone to deliver the delicious chill I’d been anticipating. But there are plenty of chills of a more descriptive nature to be enjoyed here. Paver has travelled in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, as well as experiencing the seasons of both enduring daylight and darkness on Spitsbergen, and her first-hand experience and passion for the Arctic landscape illuminates even the most clipped of her frequently economical sentences. Although most of the action takes place in and around a fictitious location, Gruhuken, Paver succeeds in bringing the Arctic landscape and its conflicted history vividly to life.

Much of the story is conveyed – in that tried and trusted polar tradition – through journal extracts. Our diarist is Jack Miller, a character immediately set apart from his adventuring colleagues by his class. While the prodigious expense of mounting a private expedition ensured that most participants were privileged gentlemen, Jack hails from the lower middle classes. With an undergraduate career behind him that he could not afford to pursue to postgraduate level, Jack is educated enough to expect more from his life, and to resent not having achieved this. He joins the expedition feeling like an outsider because of his class, and harbouring a potentially explosive mix of gratitude and resentment. Jack’s increasing physical isolation, as the expedition team decrease in size and journey further into the icy wilderness, is mirrored in interesting ways by his self-perception as a social outcast. I sympathised with Jack, but – just as the icy landscape refracts light, creating illusions and mirages – also found myself questioning the limits of his perceptions and credibility as a narrator.

All the classic ghost story ingredients are present here, from an unreliable narrator, to cryptic warnings from reticent locals and of course – those canine barometers of haunted happenings – inexplicably unsettled dogs. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is Paver’s playful depiction of the huskies who emerge as individual and memorable characters just as they do in accounts of many real polar expeditions. I fully expected the scares here to be more psychological than gruesome. Indeed, Paver’s work often put me in mind of Admiral Byrd’s  Alone, a classic account of polar solitude that is haunted by a number of social and psychological demons. Although Byrd’s self-inflicted ordeal took place at the opposite pole it is perhaps telling that his real-life experiences would have been roughly contemporary with Jack’s. Yet despite the adept build up of suspense, when they finally emerge, the supernatural aspects of Dark Matter seem to swerve between feeling underplayed or over-signposted. Although this is undoubtedly a book for adults, at times I was reminded of the fact that Paver has written most extensively for children. The horror of Gruhuken is either glimpsed and discounted so quickly that its menace is not sufficiently developed, or else its potential causes and history are outlined in a rigorous, almost academic way that dispels much of the sense of sinister wonder that comprises the dark heart of the very best ghost stories.

Dark Matter isn’t then, among the very best of ghost stories – in my personal spooky canon, at least. But it is still an evocative page turner of icy survival that does a good job of rendering the most elusive elements of  Arctic experience:

And why do I even try to describe the colours? Is it the human compulsion to name things, to assert control? Perhaps the same compulsion drives our meteorology: all that observing, measuring, recording. Trying to render bearable this vast, silent land.

And although the supernatural elements of the book may not fully succeed, as an exploration of isolation and simmering 1930s class tensions Dark Matter has much to offer. If never sensational, this is certainly an enjoyably solid choice for a quick read on a late autumn or winter’s evening.

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Ice by Anna Kavan


First published: 1967 (Peter Owen paperback 2006)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “I felt a fearful sense of pressure and urgency, there was no time to lose, I was wasting time; it was a race between me and the ice. Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw a dead moon dance over icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.”

So a book I picked up at random just because of the title turns out to provide one of the most unsettling and intense reading experiences I’ve enjoyed for a long time. Ice is a work of slipstream: part sci-fi, part fantasy, part psychologically searching literary fiction – but rather than sitting neatly in any of these genres Kavan’s work breeds an atmosphere of unnerving and unspecific strangeness that is uniquely her own. The story, such as it is, concerns the terrifying coming of a new ice age: a wall of ice, of creeping death, spreading slowly but fatally across the planet. Human beings flee ahead of it towards the warmer equatorial regions, fighting as they go. Kavan darkly imagines people fighting not only, fruitlessly, against the ice, but also against each other. As food and space diminish and order collapses so humankind scrabble to stake their claims amidst the wreckage: “By making war we asserted the fact that we were alive.”  Although the cause of the catastrophe is never specified and the novel deliberately shies away from realistic methods, in an era of climate change and increasing environmental tensions, its all feels worryingly contemporary.

Against this dystopian background the novel also presents a more personal, emotional struggle. Kavan’s unnamed narrator competes with a militaristic figure known only as The Warden for a fragile and sylph-like figure never called anything other than The Girl. I almost wrote “for the affections of The Girl” there, but that would be false. Ice is far more a battle to dominate than it is to romance. The Girl, we are repeatedly told, has been “forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour” and now seems incapable of individual choice. Strikingly beautiful with her glittering white hair, she is as much a possession to be fought over as the looted cars and ruined houses in the path of the ice. And she seems as ultimately doomed. The two men pursue her, battling each other and the ice through a series of unnamed environments, from Scandinavian towns to sultry – though fast cooling – jungles. It is a testament to the power of Kavan’s style – an engaging stream of consciousness that vividly and sometimes indistinguishably blends experience and imagination – that I found myself utterly caught up in the chase even though I was gravely unconvinced by the desirableness of its outcome.

I don’t believe it’s always necessary to know an author’s life story to enjoy their work, but Kavan’s biography – summarised in the edition I read in a foreword by Christopher Priest – could be a tragic and dramatic novel in its own right and in this case such facts do provide another potential way to interpret a novel that is in every way as ambiguous and as slippery as it title. Born in 1901, the author lived an active life as a world traveller, a painter, an esteemed interior decorator and property developer, even a breeder of bulldogs.  But she also experienced a lonely childhood (her father killed himself before she reached her teens), two unhappy marriages, the onset of a painful spinal disease, and the death of her son in the war, after which she attempted suicide and began the first of several spells in a Swiss sanatorium. Kavan first began taking heroin when it was legally available, prescribed as a painkiller, but she soon became dependent on it and began stockpiling the drug before it was criminalised in the 1950s. Her first books were published under her married name, Helen Ferguson, but she reforged her identity as Anna Kavan, a character from one of her novels, following one of her stays in an asylum.

All of these tragic ingredients feature in the potent, disturbing mix that is Ice, the last of Kavan’s books to be published before her death. The allegory of addiction particularly invites comment; not only do the deadly ice crystals themselves recall heroin in its powdered form but the narrator’s pursuit of the Girl also mirrors patterns of addiction. He seeks her, yet never considers their fate beyond that initial reunion. Indeed sometimes when he achieves his goal, he seems almost disappointed and abandons her only to return later once more captivated by the idea of this passive ice maiden. Yet to read Ice purely as an analogy of heroin – or to subject it too rigidly to any kind of interpretative framework – is to oversimplify it and risk dulling its immersive power. It was the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard who wrote, “Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire.” The structure of Ice – an episodic road trip from Hell interspersed with dreams, memories and brutal fantasies that become increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality – make this above all, a work simply to be experienced; a nightmarish trip in its own right to return to that peskily stubborn drug analogy.   The power here is in the flow, and  I heartily recommend going with it. This is not a comforting bedtime duvet read but if you like your fiction more than a little unnerving, you will find Ice a haunting and uniquely memorable experience.

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The Rose Crossing by Nicholas Jose

The Rose crossing

Published: 1997 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “He must be careful not to forget that the traveller was a scholar first and last, a dreamer who could not distinguish between elaborate speculation and the analysis of facts.”

‘Peculiar’ is an adjective that turns up in a high percentage of other reviews I’ve read of this historical novel from Australian author, Nicholas Jose. And while there’s much to admire here I can’t deny it was certainly one of the odder armchair journeys I’ve made this year – a result, I think, partly of the novel’s style and partly of its subject matter. As implied by its title, which alludes to – among other things – the main character’s obsession with grafting a new floral variety, this is a tale of miscegenation. A verdant, uninhabited island becomes the stage for cultural and botanical mixing: East and West collide as English and Chinese castaways forge an unusual alliance. Such hybridity is also reflected in the novel’s form: The Rose Crossing is all at once an episodic adventure tale of botany and exploration; a fatalistic, dreamlike fable; a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and a critical interrogation of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is a mirroring of structure and content that is occasionally ingenious but more often muddled.

Jose’s Prospero is Edward Popple, a seventeenth century English naturalist. Popple’s story begins at the dawn of a new era, the beheading of Charles I. Though Popple’s first-hand witnessing of this epoch-ending event made for a dramatic opening, in hindsight it felt rather contrived. The tremors of change would have been felt violently enough by all those living through that turbulent time without them having to be physically present at the execution. Although his family are royalist sympathisers, Popple – who prizes horticulture and learning above any god or king – boards The Cedar, a ship bound on a voyage of discovery, not to escape the emerging Puritan regime so much as to flee an increasingly incestuous desire for his own daughter Rosamund, the second Rose implied in the title.

The titular “Crossing” for Ros initially means cross-dressing: she stows away and passes as a cabin boy to join her father (this is not a spoiler, it’s a plot point highlighted on the novel’s back cover blurb). But, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, the term also alludes to her interactions with the island and with the Chinese castaways: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” Ros is an interesting figure and I liked the contrast between her world-view and that of her father. While Ros is very accepting of nature, both of her own passions and the rhythms of the lush tropical world around her, Popple strives constantly to subdue desire and to improve and perfect the flora around him. At the same time, however, Ros’s character could have been more developed and I often found myself longing for a more sustained insight into her emotional state. Although she is clearly meant to represent the body to Popple’s mind, her actions are rarely explored as fully as they deserve to be. The tempo of this novel is rather uneven: the story lingers on Popple’s memories and reflections, retelling the same moment several times, insightfully, but at a glacial pace, then suddenly a huge dramatic event will occur and pass almost without interpretation in the space of just a few pages. There is something rather dreamlike about the whole tale and though this unevenness contributes to this intoxicating atmosphere its overall effectiveness was  – like so much else here – rather mixed.

Unevenly crafted it may be, but there’s no denying The Rose Crossing rests on a fascinating central metaphor, that of the grafted rose – and though the work is fictional I believe it does draw on some legends of horticultural history. Though I didn’t fully enjoy this novel’s plot, its unnamed island setting successfully conjures a rich “brave new world” of passion, fertility and strangeness and this atmosphere, particularly its well-imagined clash of Western and Eastern cultural values, does outshine the other flaws of its sometimes stilted, sometimes rushed narrative pace. In conclusion, Jose’s literary methods often seem to mirror the concerns of his protagonist, a quest for innovation and a very conscious, calculated process of creation that occasionally falls flat and occasionally births transient moments of great beauty and originality. Worth a read, certainly, but perhaps one to borrow rather than buy. Oh, and one further caveat, if you are squeamish about bodily emissions this probably isn’t the book for you: urination not only comprises a central plot point but excretions are frequently described with a depth and relish that borders on the uncomfortable. As I said above, it’s hard to discuss this book for long without returning to the word “peculiar.”

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One Day The Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman

One day the ice will reveal

First Published: as Wegener’s Jigsaw 2003 (Penguin edition 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “I imagine the ground beneath my feet shifting slowly. What is the point in fighting for territory if that territory moves? The thought makes me smile.”

This has to take the prize for one of the best book titles ever. Although, interestingly enough, the novel was originally published as Wegener’s Jigsaw, I much prefer the alternative title since it really encapsulates not only Dudman’s subject matter – the life of the scientist who first hypothesised continental drift – but also the way in which she writes, a unique and beguiling linguistic mix of scientific jargon, metaphor and pure poetry, suffused with melancholia. One Day The Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead tells the story of a real person – the German scientist Alfred Wegener – and comes appended with an impressively thorough bibliography, but this is a novel, an imaginative recreation, not a straight biography. Although plenty of conventional biographies do soar to some poetic heights – particularly those with a polar connection, the beauty of the frozen landscape can often inspire some particularly evocative prose  – Dudman’s more creative approach to her subject’s history allows this novel to luxuriate in a sense of creative freedom that makes  One Day The Ice… a powerful and memorable read. I was particularly impressed with the way that the author balanced the high stakes physical drama of Arctic exploration with the more emotionally draining trials of Wegener’s intellectual quest for academic acceptance for what was at the time a highly controversial theory.

The story is told in the first person by Wegener himself. Yet although the action begins with our protagonist’s childhood and concludes with his death, it reads more as a series of interlinked vignettes than a linear narrative. This a deliberate choice, made explicit on the opening page:

I can’t remember what happens next. Some memories are like that. Single photographs. Disconnected. Bright beads on a string with long dull patches between. Other memories are not just single beads, but sequences, arranged in patterns, sometime vague; just the way the string is twisted upon itself in the box.

The bead metaphor is maintained throughout Wegener’s story with different beads representing his various experiences as a brother, student, scientist, explorer, soldier and husband. It’s a satisfying and convincing way to depict the uneven nature of memory, the gemlike moments of  elation, despair and surprise live on in the mind while the gaps between them fade to stringy invisibility. Wegener’s life was a panoramic one: from the exhilaration of his early balloon flights over Germany, via multiple pioneering expeditions through the unmapped interior of Greenland, to the trauma of his experiences in the German trenches of World War One. Yet despite these passages of intense physical danger the greatest battle in Wegener’s life was intellectual, as he struggled to secure a permanent academic position and, more than this, to win acceptance for his theory of continental drift.

This is not the place to come for a beginner’s guide to Wegner’s work. Dudman is relatively vague on the specific details of his hypothesis, but she does evokes brilliantly the processes through which he arrives there: the mix of study and serendipity that first germinated the seed of discovery, and the methods he employed to test it. I loved the image of his paper jigsaw of continental shapes moved and pieced together on the surface of a globe. The Greenland sections are certainly the novel’s set-pieces, the ice-encrusted beads shine most clearly in their frozen beauty, but there is a different and no less beguiling tension to the scenes in Wegener’s study and in the lecture theatres of Europe where he struggles to further his ideas and face down his detractors. The clash between pure discovery and the tempering forces of politics and academic tribalism is vividly depicted here. The old adage that its not what you know but who you know is one that I know many modern academics would relate to, and politics and intellectual rivalries are shown to be barriers just as difficult as the crevasses Wegener traverses in Greenland.

This is a slow read: so densely packed is Dudman’s imagery that I often found myself having to return to paragraphs several times in order to fully unpick them.  Wegener also spends much of his time waiting: confined in huts and tents overwintering in Greenland. But in this context, slowness is a feature, not a failing. While his body is static, his mind is not. And just as Wegener comes to realise that the ground beneath him is shifting imperceptibly, so a feeling of motion and progress informs even the most theoretical of “bead memories” described in this unusual book. My main criticisms of the novel relate to the concluding section. While the previous Arctic expeditions were clearly delineated, even as their narratives were intersected by other beads surfacing in the narrator’s mind, the final Greenland expedition feels confused. Though the landscapes and Wegener’s own doubts, fears and hopes are evocatively written, I could not visualise the journeys made by the explorers themselves and as a result did not experience this section as immersively as the rest. The inclusion of some Greenland maps showing the routes of Wegener’s men – either factual or fictionalised – would have been a most welcome addition.

In many ways this is a sad novel.  Wegener was the father of modern plate tectonics, yet his is far from being a household name. Although modern readers understand how widely accepted continental drift theory would later become, the real validation of his ideas occurred posthumously. Indeed, several times while reading this, I was reminded of another very different scientific pioneer, the meteorologist William Fitzroy, a tragic figure (brought so memorably to life in Harry Thompson’s brilliant historical novel This Thing of Darkness) who also devoted his life to defending a theory that he never lived to see gain the acceptance it deserved.  Dudman’s remarkable novel deserves full credit for so boldly mixing science and poetry, and above all for lifting the lid on the life of a fascinating man whose name should be much better known than it is today. 

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Film review: The Ghost of Piramida

Something visual: my first film review on this blog! Although Roxploration is first and foremost a book blog, I’ve decided I may occasionally review other media if their subjects fit particularly well with the ethos of my blog. The Ghost of Piramida certainly does that, combining polar travel, exploration, music, memoir and an ambience that is more than a little ghostly….

Ghost of Piramida

Director: Andreas Koefoed
Release date: 2013
Viewed by me: Digital download bought through Vimeo

Memorable quote: “It was like we all knew that something beautiful had come to an end”

Piramida is an Arctic ghost town, an abandoned Russian mining settlement on the island of Spitsbergen, just 1200 km from the North Pole. The town was constructed in the 1940s and hastily abandoned in 1998. The departing townsfolk were allowed to take with them only what could be easily transported by plane and this fact, combined with the freezing temperatures which arrest the process of decay, gives the place a haunting atmosphere of fresh desertion. The mining equipment is still standing, and the apartments and domestic buildings still contain tables, chairs, photographs and posters, the frozen breaths of the lives they once sheltered. Andreas Koefoed’s film presents an idiosyncratic exploration of this fascinating location, combining stunning views of its haunting present with photographs and footage of its thrumming glory days when the town was home to over a thousand people.

Glorious might not be the word that immediately springs to mind when describing a hard-working industrial community in a place that spends half the year in darkness, and where temperatures rarely creep far above freezing. Yet this is precisely how Koefoed’s narrator, Alexandr Ivanovic Naumkin, a former Piramida resident, remembers his time there. It was, he recalls with a grief as visibly undecayed as the town itself, “a young man’s paradise.” The film begins with the now aged Alexandr in his Moscow flat projecting the reels of the film he lovingly recorded during what he describes as Edenic interlude in his life, away from the troubled history of the Soviet mainland. Koefoed’s film intersperses such  footage with views of the town today, often cutting to precisely the same landmarks and monuments: the central apartment blocks then, hosting the ebb and flow of warmly layered Russian families, and now, home only to nesting legions of opportunistic kittiwakes.

But The Ghost of Piramida is not simply an historical documentary; it’s also a music video. Koefoed’s modern day Arctic explorers are not historians or scientists but musicians. Mads Brauer, Casper Clausen and Rasmus Stolberg are the three members of Danish experimental band Efterklang and although the icy landscapes around them are breathtaking and the abandoned buildings haunting, their nine day voyage of discovery in and around Piramida is primarily an aural one. The camera follows Efterklang as they record over a thousand sound samples: drumming on rusty pipes, brushing the frosted glass in the bottle store, rhythmic running across rickety gangways and even massaging life into the world’s most northerly grand piano, its once polished woodwork now peeling as it stands alone in the town’s empty “Culture Palace.” The band would later use these recordings and the memories of their time there to inspire their album Piramida, released in autumn 2012 and a firm favourite of my record collection. You don’t need prior knowledge of the band or the album to find this film engaging, but it certainly adds another layer of satisfaction to be able to see precisely how many of the unique sounds on the record are made.

The Ghost of Piramida offers depth of emotion rather than depth of information. At times I would have liked to learn more about the objects and buildings Efterklang were encountering. Alexandr’s interpolated narrative provides welcome context to the town’s domestic arrangements but the functions and history of many of the more industrial remnants remain undisclosed (Alexandr was selected for relocation there not as a miner but an electrician). I can see how some viewers could find this sparsity of detail frustrating, but what the film lacks in hard cold facts it makes up for in atmosphere. Efterklang provide the soundtrack to both the modern and historical sections of the film, mixing vocal tracks lifted directly from the Piramida album with instrumental pieces composed specifically to accompany Alexandr’s recollections. The band’s melodic melancholia fits the film’s visuals perfectly, adding considerable emotional power to the narrator’s often quietly understated sentences (subtitled in English from the original Russian).

All this sounds incredibly bleak, and in many ways it is. Alexandr still seems ensconced in his grief, mourning “the dream that was never to come true.” But the film is not entirely devoid of humour. While making their recordings, the band, all childhood friends, engage with each other and with the strange landscape around them with a sense of playfulness that echoes Alexandr’s tales of community sports and children’s events during the town’s heyday, as if the spirits of Piramida past – not dead, merely dormant – are once more beginning to stir. And the three musicians do bring the location to life through their moving compositions. Efterklang are accompanied on their adventure by a taciturn Russian guardsman, entrusted to protect them from the very real threat of polar bear attack and it’s hard not to smile watching their expressions of increasing unease as he delights in regaling them with the gory details of past bear-related fatalities in the area. It’s also interesting to watch the relationship develop between the band and their protector. Initially, the practical Russian is visibly unimpressed by Efterklang’s musical mission but his icy exterior eventually begins to thaw.

Overall this is a fascinating documentary of unfulfilled past dreams and “Dreams Today” (an Efterklang song title) that powerfully combines music and memory. The “Ghost” of the title works on a number of levels.  Alexandr is clearly possessed by his yearnings for the long life in Piramida that never came to pass, while the modern footage of the town still displays so clearly the detritus of the former inhabitants’ daily lives that it’s hard not to imagine their enduring presence. At one point Rasmus comments “now I get just a little… scared.” The band are jumpy in nervous anticipation of ursine attack but Koefoed’s film also creates the sense that the lost lives in this context are not only the victims of polar bears but also the dreams of busy habitation that came so abruptly to an end in 1998. Gone, but not forgotten, and once you have seen it, once you have heard it, The Ghost will haunt you too.

You can buy or rent The Ghost of Piramida through Vimeo.

Or why not take a virtual trip to the ghost town yourself courtesy or or even Google Maps?

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Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

brushing off the dustEvery most Friday(s), in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.

Beyond Black

Published: 2005 by Harper Perennial
My copy: paperback borrowed from my Mum
First read and reviewed by me: July 2010

Memorable quote: They don’t become decent people just because they’re dead. People are right to be afraid of ghosts. If you get people who are bad in life – I mean, cruel people, dangerous people – why do you think they’re going to be any better after they’re dead?

This was my introduction to Hilary Mantel (the start of an enduring relationship as I subsequently went on to devour Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) and wow, I absolutely loved it: gripping, blackly comic and genuinely creepy. Overweight Alison Hart is a medium (her fleshy folds provide a buffer, she feels, against the tremendous suffering in her life, both supernatural and otherwise) who tours the soulless towns of London’s commuter belt to bring her punters messages from the other side. She is accompanied by two characters: her assistant, the very prickly Colette, whose cold-hearted pragmatism provides a sharp contrast to Alison’s compassion and supernatural sensitivity; and by Morris, her spirit guide, a thoroughly nasty individual whose seediness and criminal tendencies have been in no way diminished by his death. I love Mantel’s chilling take on the phenomena of the spirit guide: the usual cliché is that psychics claim to be guided by some thoroughly enlightened individual, a druid or native American shaman. But surely these goodly types would have more pressing things to do on the other side than bring the middle-aged women of Slough messages from their deceased aunts? No, Mantel, postulates – persuasively, if chillingly – the sort of people who are more likely to stick around after death are actually those like Morris; characters with no particular calling other than a desire to cause misery to others, all in the name of “having a laugh.”

Alison is a wonderfully large (no pun intended) and complex character, part victim, part therapist, part fraudulent show-woman, part Mother Teresa. The novel deals with her career across a large tract of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, taking in important events such as the orgy of national grief inspired by the death of Princess Diana (a field-day for psychics) and of course 9/11. Beyond Black exposes the ambivalence of Alison’s relationship with the spirits, particularly those like Morris whom she once knew before they passed over. Mantel writes of the spirit world in a way that is utterly compelling and very real, but it’s also possible to read the novel as some sort of exploration of the lingering psychological effects of childhood trauma: Morris and his cronies are “friends” of Alison’s Mum, a prostitute, and Alison only dimly remembers the most shocking details of the abuse she receives during her neglected childhood. She must force herself to relive these painful events in order to find closure and any sort of reprieve from the evil supernatural presence of Morris in her adult life. Alison’s simultaneous gift and curse can therefore be taken either literally or psychologically; a sustained feat of interpretative dualism that really impressed me.  Mantel is similarly generous to the other mediums she portrays in the book, suggesting that whether or not we choose to take seriously their messages from beyond, we should admire their skill as performers and as psychologists. Alison often gets details wrong during her shows – the spirits don’t always tell her the truth, she claims – and even when they do, she prefers to pass on to her clients the details they want to hear rather rather than all the uncomfortable truths. It’s a fascinating psychological portrait.

I finished this novel with a sense that the real tragedy Mantel is trying to depict here is not so much the wasted and tortured lives of neglected children like the waif Alison once was, but rather the emptiness and shallowness of many of the other characters in the novel who have lost all connection to the past: people who live on indentikit new-build estates and neither know nor care who their grandmother was. Whether good or bad the past has a force to bear on the present, we ignore it at our peril.

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