First Published: 1977 by William Collins Sons & Co. (Sceptre 2nd ed. 1994)
My copy: Bought second-hand in paperback
Memorable quote: “We’re in a unique position. It is far less dangerous to let the criminal escape than to admit the existence of the criminal.”
First-hand accounts of life on the early Antarctic expeditions typically include a lot of positive “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” type rhetoric. That’s hardly surprising: the men were marooned on that forbidding continent in cramped huts and tents with no connection to the outside world until their ships returned the following year – an arrival dependent on pack ice conditions and by no means guaranteed. Really, it was a matter of survival and sanity that they all got along. More than that, the eyes of the nation were upon them and when the explorers arrived home (those that did) they needed to rise to the role of heroes – rather like Shakespeare’s Henry V in the speech quoted above. The public were hungry for narratives of mutual support and courage in adversity; any lingering tensions that had arisen in the claustrophobia of the huts needed to be forgotten. Even bearing in mind the censorship and self-censorship that necessarily occurred, I find the strength of the some of friendships forged on those early polar forays to be remarkable. It’s impossible not to be moved, for example, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s emotional tributes to fallen comrades Bowers and Wilson. But there are two sides to every story and, human nature being what it is, there must have been a lot more discord among the men than the brief and quickly glossed over flashes of unrest and disagreement that do emerge – usually between the lines – in their published chronicles. Thomas Keneally thought so to, and this novel is his response to that notion.
Victim of the Aurora tells the story of a fictional 1909 Antarctic expedition lead by one Sir Eugene Stewart. The action is narrated retrospectively by the expedition artist, Anthony Piers, now in his twilight years and reflecting back on his polar sojourn, and on the lost era of his youth more generally. Piers’ memories are dominated by one event, the death of expedition journalist Victor Henneker. As Piers and his companions investigate the suspicious circumstances of Henneker’s demise they find the bonds of trust that are so essential for survival in the icy darkness begin to snap. Seeking a motive and a perpetrator even as they struggle to admit the fact of murder, the explorers investigate the victim’s past only to find that the journalist had supplied ample ammunition, having uncovered the darkest guilty secrets of most of the assembled company. Soon, the men are tumbling deeper into a crevasse of mutual distrust.
The claustrophobic confines of an expedition hut make a superb location for a murder mystery: the chill here is both literal and metaphorical while Keneally’s prose is taut and well paced. This book can be read on several different levels. It works well as a fairly straight whodunnit complete with the usual twists and false positives of the crime genre. But more than the psychology of murder, Keneally seems to be examining here the confused psychology of a whole era. The novel does not shy away from exposing troubling Edwardian prejudices and inconsistencies regarding class, sexuality and the whole notion of reputation and social acceptability and this makes it at once an uncomfortable and thought-provoking read. The third level of interest is that, for Antarctic enthusiasts, Victim of the Aurora offers an enjoyable game of historical “I spy.” Eugene Stewart’s expedition is fictional, of course, but Keneally has done his homework and it is not difficult to identify his sources. The narrative draws on real events from both the Nimrod Expedition (tellingly led by another Sir E. S.) and from the later Terra Nova endeavour, so I enjoyed matching Keneally’s characters to their historical counterparts. At times, however, these similarities were distracting. The parallels are very striking in places and having made the connection I then sometimes struggled to accept or believe when the imaginary explorer’s actions diverged from my understanding of his biographical counterpart. Perhaps I am rather too invested in some of the real life explorers!
Australian novelist Keneally is most famous for Schindler’s Ark, immortalised on the big screen as Schindler’s List. This lesser known work may not pack quite the same emotional punch but it’s still pacy, well researched and conveys an ice-cold atmosphere of tension as well as introducing some challenging moral questions. In short, it’s certainly worth a read and I’d like to extend my thanks to Karen, a fellow polar enthusiast who took the time to email me and recommend it. If you’d like to recommend a read to me please do get in touch. My contact details are on my About page.