First Published: 2010 by Bloomsbury
My copy: bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “He begins to be carried away on his words. In this solitude he has begun to look within himself and into his past in a way that he has never done before.”
As a devotee of polar literature – both real and imagined – I was immediately drawn to this work of literary fiction which is set in 1616 and tells the story of the whaling ship Heartsease returning from a season in the Arctic, and of the single crew-mate who is left behind to spend a polar winter in icy solitude. I would imagine Harding has read Admiral Byrd’s Alone – a real life account of a similarly lonely feat of survival at the other end of the earth during the 1930s – but by setting her story in a much earlier time period where people had cruder technology and a more unquestioningly spiritual outlook, Harding manages to add a different perspective to her tale of ice and isolation. Much of the narrative is told in flashback as Cave’s solitude allows no distraction from the demons of his past that haunt him with increasing presence as the winter progresses. This is a melancholy little book but like the icy environments that Cave must endure, there is much beauty to be enjoyed here.
I found the narrative rather less engaging in the second half, which switches perspective to focus on the experiences of one of Cave’s former shipmates (but that may just be the polar nutcase in me complaining!) Overall this a profound and beautifully written meditation on such issues as survival, faith, grief and atonement, and yes there are polar bears in it.