Published: 2009 by Allen & Unwin
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “So easy to forget that sea ice is only a veneer, inherently flawed, skin-deep as desire, so transitory as to be scattered out to sea, displaced by ocean, dispersed by wind – gone in the lapse of a day.”
Robyn Mundy has lived and worked as a tour guide and field assistant in Antarctica, and the sense of her first-hand experience and clear love of that most beautiful, desolate place radiates from every line of this, her debut novel – written as part of a PhD in creative writing. One of the themes that emerges more strongly in this than in much other polar fiction I’ve read is the multiplicity of Ice. Not only does the Ice exist in many different forms: sastrugi, young ice, pancake ice, deadly crevasses covered by a treacherous layer of snow but it represents so many different possibilities to different people, as a focus of art, science, leisure, national pride, the fragility of humanity in the face of nature, but also – at once – the strength of past heroes like the early explorers who did manage to survive (mostly) and make inroads in this inhospitable landscape. Mundy’s emphasis on Antarctica’s diversity of meaning is one of things that makes her novel really interesting but at the same time I felt that The Nature of Ice suffered from the same lack of coherence as its subject. In touching on so many themes – photography, romance, desire the nature of loneliness, the claustrophobic social dynamics of station life – it failed to engage with any of them in a way that was fully satisfying.
Mundy uses a time-split narrative. In the present, we follow Freya Jorgensen a photographer spending one summer on an Australian Antarctic base to carry out a project recreating the classic work of her photographic hero, Frank Hurley, during his time on the Mawson’s Aurora Expedition. Freya finds the beauty of the landscape and isolation of station life forcing her to reassess not just her ideas about Hurley’s work but also about her marriage and other priorities in life. The other narrative strand takes place during the expedition of 1911-14. I had rather expected Mundy to follow Hurley himself (and a few sales blurbs I’ve read for this book imply that she does) but in actual fact expedition leader Douglas Mawson is her focus. I knew very little about this Australian expedition before reading this and enjoyed a real sense of tension from not knowing whether all the men in the party would survive, a frisson of uncertainty I no longer experience reading about Scott and co. The novel also explores the isolation and burdens of leadership while Mawson’s touching relationship with Paquita, the fiancée anxiously awaiting his safe return, forms an interesting counterpoint to Freya’s regular email interactions with her husband Marcus. Although the wonders of modern technology have allowed the two to remain closely in touch despite their physical distance, Freya finds herself frustrated, in a way that Mawson never does, by Marcus’s virtual proximity and the need to chronicle her day for him when her experiences of Ice and station life are changing her in ways she cannot easily express to an outsider.
This is quite a slow novel, a pace that seems to reflect the realities of Antarctic life for both Freya and Mawson; so much waiting on the weather, so many aborted trips. It feels as if Mundy couldn’t quite decide what was her overall focus in this book, but she raises so many interesting philosophical issues about love, life and art along the way that I was largely prepared to forgive her. I was particularly interested in the question of whether Freya could replicate the emotion of Hurley’s photos without experiencing the dangers he did due to the crude equipment of early missions, although again this could have been pushed further than it ultimately was.
Overall, though, this is an enjoyable novel and romantic enough to be moving without ever turning to slush (and believe me, my tolerance for slush is pretty much zero!) The Kindle edition I bought suffered from some formatting problems and half of the authorial notes and acknowledgements section seemed to be missing. This was a shame as I’d like to know where to go next to read more about Mawson and his men. But the edition does include a selection of Hurley’s remarkable photographs which really serve to illuminate the stories of both Mawson and Freya. A slow, thoughtful read that may be muddled in places but certainly deserves a place in the Library of any polar fiction enthusiast.