The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

Birthday Boys

Published: 2009 by Abacus
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: It wasn’t all misery. On one of our halts we lay spreadeagled on the ice and stared up at the sky blazing with the glory of the most wonderful aurora I’d ever witnessed. I groaned beneath the splendour of those silken curtains, yellow, green and orange, billowing at the window of the heavens.

I first read this fictionalised retelling of the Terra Nova polar expedition several years ago – in fact it was the first thing on the subject I read, so Bainbridge has a lot to answer for in terms of the enduring obsession she has sparked. Returning to this novel, having devoured everything I could find on the topic in the intervening years, was an interesting experience. I now feel so much closer to and more knowledgeable about the brave and foolhardy characters involved, so I can better appreciate just how persuasively Bainbridge captures the individual voices of the five doomed men on that final polar trek. We all know how this story will end, so it isn’t really overall narrative that gives this book its power but Bainbridge’s powerful characterisations of the men involved. Each of the five men of the final polar party narrate a different section of the overall expedition story: working-class Taff Evans, who hopes his measly wages from the adventure will be enough to buy him a pub; the deeply spiritual and caring scientist/artist Edward Wilson; indefatigable and loveable Birdie Bowers, the “Tigger” of the expedition; Scott himself, who is not always likeable but who Bainbridge portrays with insightful complexity (particularly in his relationship with his deeply unconventional wife) and lastly, taciturn Oates. If Birdie was the Terra Nova‘s Tigger, then Oates was undoubtedly its Eeyore – pessimistic to a fault, but ultimately right in his gloomy predictions. The last chapter, which belongs to Oates, moved me to tears even second time around as it contains some of the most moving prose I’ve read anywhere. I simply can’t recommend this little book highly enough.

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