Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski

Skating to Antarctica

Published: 1998 by Granta
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “If I trace it back, that wish for a whiteout began with the idea of being an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. Not during my first stay in a mental hospital, in Hove, when I was fourteen, but later aged twenty and twenty-one, in London’s Maudsley psychiatrc unit, hospital became my preferred environment. White hospital sheets seemed to hold out the promise of what I really wanted: a place of safety, a white oblivion.”

From its taut opening paragraphs – which include the lines quoted above – it is immediately apparent that Skating to Antarctica is not going to be another derring-do adventure narrative. Rather, Diski has created what Francis Spufford calls (introducing an extract in his 2007 anthology The Antarctic) “a small classic of Antarctic iconoclasm. This is Antarctica, the neurotic version.” Part holiday travelogue part searing memoir of the author’s troubled childhood, the book is at once humorous and harrowing with chapters alternating between an account of Diski’s Antarctic cruise onboard the Akademik Vavilov and a brutal interrogation of her difficult relationship with her mother. The two strands blend together more seamlessly than might be expected because what Diski is really exploring here is the series of events, emotions and experiences that can cause a person to yearn for his most isolated of locations. In this respect her story fits perfectly into the polar canon, alongside the very different experiences of men like Apsley Cherry-Garrard who also traveled in an effort to find meaning, a meaning apart from the rather suffocating “Victorian” values of his family.  Rather like the setting of many sci-fi novels – at once alien and familiar – Antarctica functions as a space apart, detached enough to allow critical reflection back on the more familiar aspects of everyday life. The further Diski travels from her London roots the more fully she is able to to reflect upon them, with powerful results.

Although Diski makes some attempts to become writer in residence at an Antarctic research station these are unsuccessful and she ends up travelling to Ice as a tourist on board a commercial cruise. This sets Skating to Antarctica apart from other Antarctic memoirs; although such a trip would doubtlessly be expensive it is not in the realms of the impossible and it was interesting to read a paying customer’s experience of the continent.  Diski’s observations are razor sharp and she turns her blade with equal intensity to the bleak beauty of the polar landscape and to the foibles of her fellow tourists – some endearing some sinister – before turning it in on herself and her own memories. Diski travels expecting the comfort of whiteness only to discover that icebergs are in fact a dazzling array of different blues. Her own writing displays a similarly unexpected variety. After some uncomfortable scenes in which she interrogates former neighbours about their perceptions of her parents’ various failed suicide attempts, Diski then indulges in some wonderfully sharp and funny descriptions of the landscape and fauna of South Georgia: “Elephant seal is one of those euphemistic names humans give to creatures who remind them of what they don’t want to be reminded of. If an honest name were to be given, they would be flaccid penis seal.” I hadn’t expected a book that deals so frankly with mental illness to make me laugh out loud.

Skating to Antarctica is not an easy read but it is a consistently engaging one. A shrewd observer, Diski explores perceptively how and why we travel, and I enjoyed her quiet contemplation of her fellow tourists, most of whom spent so long recording their experiences of icebergs and penguins through a lens that they never seemed to stop and savour the moment. There are no risks here of starvation or scurvy, but Diski is a scarred survivor and this book is a survival narrative – survival in emotional rather than raw physical terms. And although Diski’s early family life is – I hope – unique in its particular awfulness, her interwoven descriptions of polar travel are among the most accessible and affecting I’ve read. A truly fascinating memoir.

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