The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

The Voyage of the Narwhal

First Published: 1998 (Kindle ed. 2012 by Fourth Estate)
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Do you ever feel this in your travels out west? That all the unexplored parts of the world are closing their doors; that so many of us, traveling so far, cannot avoid crossing each other’s paths and repeating each other’s discoveries?”

Re-imaginings of historical polar expeditions frequently entice by offering a subtly shifted perspective on a familiar tale. In many cases they also offer the morbid lure of train wreck fiction, the reader unable to avert their gaze as carriages hurtle inexorably towards disaster. By contrast, novels about fictional polar expeditions generate a different frisson, the shiver of uncertainty, of uncharted waters: how it will end? Who will survive? Andrea Barrett’s subtle and compelling novel takes as its point of departure the many expeditions launched in the mid nineteenth-century to search for John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror – initially as would be rescuers, and later just in a quest for relics and for answers. To this often ill-prepared flotilla, Barrett adds the fictional Philadelphian brig Narwhal and an expedition led by two very different personalities: the egotistical Zeke Vorhees, journeying for fame and glory, and his future brother in law, the pensive, withdrawn naturalist Erasmus Wells. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Erasmus, professionally sensitive to every intricate detail of the flora and fauna he encounters and yet consistently misjudging the motivations  and emotions of other human beings.

In Erasmus’ company, what begins in the typical mould of an icy adventure narrative gradually morphs into a much more nuanced and melancholy meditation on the exploitation of the wilderness and of the Arctic peoples. Barrett trained in biology and even began a PhD in zoology before beginning to write fiction and this scientific grounding clearly informs her writing. But while Erasmus’ meticulous attention to detail had me reaching for the dictionary in a few places, it never encumbered the narrative. This is because Erasmus’ scientific ardour is so convincingly characterised, and because it underpins one of the key conflicts in the book: the clash of purpose that was also evident in so many of the real historical expeditions. Should the explorers voyage into the unknown to record, observe and learn; or to name, plunder and shape the landscape to their needs? In other words do they explore to see what’s there, or just to see themselves reflected in its glory? Although they journey as friends, even potential in-laws, Erasmus and Zeke represent these two perspectives and it is the tragic consequences of their divergent ideals that makes The Voyage of the Narwhal  such a powerful read. This is a book which posits many questions to which there are no easy answers.

The Arctic section of the novel occupies perhaps half of the action and the rest, for those who survive, is aftermath. A common complaint against polar fiction is that after the high tension of the survival chapters, any sections taking place back amongst civilisation can feel anticlimactic. I was surprised and impressed that, if anything, Barrett’s novel reverses this. The novel’s Arctic sections capture the landscape’s razor sharp of balance wonder and danger, neatly drawing on many details of the real voyages launched in search of Franklin. Yet, while the tone and detail felt believable, and the sense of impending danger kept me turning the pages, Barrett’s key players didn’t really engage me on an emotional level until near the end of the ship-bound story. One of the characters is later besieged by remorse that he didn’t fully appreciate or get to know some of his former shipmates until it was too late and I found I later experienced a similar pang. It is only once they return from the Ice and in their very different reactions to it, that the figures in this book come most fully to life – even if,  for some of them, it seems like that life is already over. As one character states: “I feel like all I’m doing is waiting… Waiting to heal, waiting to learn how to walk without toes, waiting to see what shape my life will take now.”

His poetically expressed guilt is one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the life of real Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of Scott’s last expedition and a figure I find particularly fascinating. The second half of Barrett’s novel often made me think of Cherry, as it rehearses similar themes to his story: the narrow line between public perceptions of polar success and failure and a sense of powerless once expedition stories -and, crucially participants’ reputations – are in the hands of the media. Yet despite these superficial similarities, Antarctic and Arctic experience are poles apart – in the literal sense, of course, and in one key social area. Antarctic exploration can leave indelible marks on the bodies and minds of those who return, shattering some friendships even as others are forged but voyages to a continent with no indigenous population leave behind them only graves, junk and detritus. The Arctic, in this respect, is more complex and the most haunting elements of Barrett’s book are those which express the lasting impact of Zeke’s ambitions and Erasmus’ thirst for knowledge, not only on the men themselves, their shipmates and their waiting families, but also on the Arctic natives they encounter along the way.

To sum up, The Voyage of the Narwhal is a convincingly-done and thought-provoking addition to the canon of Arctic fiction in general and (loosely) Franklin-related creativity in particular.

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White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway

White Ghost Girls

Published: 2006 by Atlantic Books
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “And now I want to kill my father because he surrounds himself with so many people and adventures and stories that I will never reach him, never be able to tell him what happened to Frankie and me.”

Plenty gets written about the relationship between stage and screen: “the film based on the book, the book of the film” and so on. As far as I know White Ghost Girls does not have a film adaptation but this slim novel feels like a cinematic experience in its own right. Greenway’s short – sometimes fragmented – sentences erupt with colour and detail: “Red banners. Red flags. Little Red books of Mao Zedong’s edicts wave in the air.” Our narrator is Kate, a young American girl growing up in Hong Kong during the time of the Vietnam war. While her older sister Frankie rebels, revelling in curiosity, risk and her burgeoning sexuality, Kate remains quiet and watchful and, through the eyes of such an observant narrator, the readers become watchers too. This is both the great strength of White Ghost Girls and its weakness. When I finished this book it was wasn’t really Greenway’s plot or her characters that stayed with me, just a montage of some of her tremendously vivid imagery: intricate but static scenes rather like leafing through an old photograph album. This reaction may indicate that the novel’s plot is rather thin, which is certainly true, but more than that it emphasises the strikingly visual way in which Greenway writes.

The words “Vietnam” or “Chairman Mao” can unleash a flurry of moral and political debate, but while these sorts of questions do bubble away under the surface with gathering potency, what I enjoyed here was the different perspective on offer. Daily life continues even as epochs are made and unmade. Hong Kong’s privileged English speaking community cannot be unaffected by the violence and political unrest, but they strive to maintain an illusion of safety, detachment and above all, normality. The main consequence of war for Kate and Frankie is a desperate longing for their father, a war photographer who spends long periods away from home recording the conflict.  While the danger of his job adds another level of anxiety, the girls’ clingy attempts to stave off their increasing sense of alienation from him are something that anyone growing up with busy or partially absent parents can relate to.  Yet Kate’s elegiac story shows the damaging consequences of her parents’ well meaning attempts to shield her from the violence simmering around them. Unable to discuss or fully interpret the unsettling things she has seen, she retreats into herself, fear becoming another strand in the complex tangle of emotions and hormones in this haunting coming of age story.

White Ghost Girls is colourful novel of cultural clash: East and West, rich and poor, the violent and the mundane. Indeed through the unquestioning eyes of its juvenile narrator so quietly and fully are these different factors blended that story’s climax feels nowhere near as shocking as perhaps it should have done: sensitivity and numbness is another contrast to add to Greenway’s potent mix. More like a slide show than a novel, this fragmentary narrative will nonetheless immerse you in the fascinating, complex and troubling world of 1960s Hong Kong, a world of colour and conflict: temples, street markets, fishermen, swimming pool parties and revolutionaries. It’s a trip well worth taking.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror

Published: 2007 by Bantam
My copy: Bought in paperback

Memorable quote: “The blue flame in his chest had burrowed towards his heart like some alien entity, lingered like a disease, and centered in him as an almost unwanted core of conviction that he would do whatever he had to do to survive. Anything.”

Rarely do I reread novels; I’m generally too conscious of the forever growing list of titles out there that I’ve yet to tackle for the first time. But I made an exception for this, Dan Simmons’ hefty historical horror novel based on the ill-fated Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. I first read The Terror in 2010  – back in those dim and distant days before I was obsessed with polar exploration – at the time I knew nothing about John Franklin, Francis Crozier or their quest for that holy grail of Arctic shipping short-cuts but I remember being utterly consumed by this book, to the level of getting up early just to read it before work and then almost being late in because I simply couldn’t put it down. Since then I’ve come to appreciate some of Simmons’ other novels including his Hyperion books and the wonderfully overwrought Drood. But I’ve often wondered since whether my initial, rapturous response to The Terror was entirely due to the quality of the novel, or if it was rather an early symptom of quite how tightly and how enduringly the pack ice was about to grip the good ship Roxanne.  There was only one way to find out…

The answer is a little from column A, a little from column B. Even second time around this book is a captivating prospect. Knowing so much more about the subject matter also gave me an enhanced appreciation of just how thoroughly Simmons has done his research. He may fill in the gaps in the known story of the expedition with dark imagination but the scenes of above and below deck – locked in the ice upon the ships, Erebus and Terror, that became both sanctuary and prison – are crammed to bursting with authentic sights, sounds and smells. Simmons brings vividly to life many of the very different characters on the voyage: from the cooks, cabin boys, ice-masters and marines to Franklin: pretentious, aristocratic and secretly lacking confidence; and Crozier the likeable, practical, alcoholic who is Simmons’ protagonist.

But Simmons also brings an element of fear above and beyond the already pretty extreme horror of the cold, darkness, starvation and encroaching madness experienced by the trapped crews. In this imagining of their story, the men also face another ‘Terror,’ a huge, and terrifyingly intelligent creature on the ice torments them, brutally picking off crew members one by one. The monster could so easily have been a gimmick, or outstayed its welcome (my frequent gripe with horror as a genre is that the scariness is too often stretched out so long it loses impact). But The Terror avoids both of these pitfalls. In this scenario, the drawn out nature of the suffering is the primary source of horror: the men must gradually face the prospect of their dwindling supplies, and the onset of scurvy. The monster primarily serves to vary the pace, adding an element of surprise and more immediate tension which could otherwise be lacking from the narrative. That no survivors from the expedition were traced is well known and The Terror is, many ways, a grisly catalogue of deaths. But by adding in “the Thing on the Ice” (also a satisfying pop-culture reference to that notorious horror at the other pole) Simmons ratchets up the suspense, adding the burning question “how?” to the more inevitable “how long?” The creature feature aspect of the book has received mixed reviews in the past but I think it works brilliantly, and also allows for some truly memorable action set pieces such as the scene in which Ice Master Blanky is pursued across the ship and especially the new year carnival. “Oh, my, Mr Poe would love that I think,” comments one character as the men prepare for their masque amidst the permanent darkness of the Arctic winter. And yes, I believe he would. It’s a hearty recommendation.

An enthralling read, then, with much to enjoy. But The Terror is not without its flaws and these were thrown into sharper relief second time around as I returned to this novel with more knowledge both of polar exploration and of the author’s  other works. Simmons’ passion for research shines through and while, as a polar nerd, I appreciated the intricacy of his detail, at times it did feel forced. Part of the art of research is knowing what information to let go as well as what to include and, as I’ve commented in relation to his other books, Simmons seems reluctant to let anything go. This is a long book, and that works because it really captures a sense of slow starvation and gradually gathering despair but it still would have benefited from more aggressive editing. Asides like the reference to Darwin and Fitzroy’s travels on The Beagle, though interesting, feel shoehorned in, as do those external events perceived via Crozier’s alleged “second sight.” Similarly, the character of Dr. Goodsir (who is not a naval man and asks a lot of pertinent questions) becomes too much of an excuse for explanations and exposition. As in Drood, there are also a few linguistic anachronisms that creep in, such a Goodsir’s mention of a “gopher.” Such digressions and oversights can be off-putting in a work so character driven and otherwise well done but, though disappointing, thankfully they are not enough to disrupt the overall atmosphere of page-turning tension.

If you’ve read this book I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ending. I won’t spoil things for those who haven’t by saying exactly what happens but suffice to say the final few chapters of The Terror mark a radical shift of tone and focus. First time around I was floored by this. I appreciated Simmons’ efforts to try something different, reaching into Inuit mythology (albeit, from what I can tell, a rather fictionalised mish-mash of different tribal legends) to provide an alternative perspective, but I couldn’t decide if this section was really successful or not. This time I knew what was coming and actually found the book much more of an organic whole: when you know what to look for, there are tiny clues strewn throughout the action that make the conclusion seem less of a shocker. Doomed polar expeditions don’t make for the most uplifting reading, of course, but there are plenty of moments of tenderness and humour mixed in with the frequent gore and despair in this book.  Simmons’ ending could be accused of fantastical wish fulfillment. Certainly it contains more promise than might have been expected, but ultimately – for all Simmons’ research – this is a work of fantasy, and I found it was a wish that I too wanted to see fulfilled.

Far from perfect, then, but still one hell of a voyage as well as being a powerful voyage into Hell: as Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote of his experiences at the other pole, “Dante was right when he places the circles of ice below the circles of fire.”  Simmons’ novel has much to recommend it to fans of horror and historical fiction alike. I understand now that some of my initial rapture in response to this book was really a response to its subject matter and to the thrill of having discovered the literary lure of the Ice, but The Terror still deserves its position, entrenched as firmly as the marooned Erebus and Terror, in my list of top reads.

Apparently the novel is currently being adapted as a TV series. I hope they can do it justice; the linchpin has to be who they cast as Crozier. I will follow developments with interest.

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Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Tobys Room

First published: 2012 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin ed 2013)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “Everything he saw, everything he felt, seemed to be filtered through his memories of the front line, as if a thin wash had been laid over his perceptions of this scene. Columns of sleety rain marched across the fields while, in the distance, grey clouds massed for another attack. Somehow or other he had to connect with the present, but he found it almost impossible. ”

A stand-alone novel rather than a direct sequel, Toby’s Room nonetheless features the same cast of characters as Barker’s Life Class (which I read and reviewed earlier this year); that is, the young artists of the Slade school and their real life teacher, the renowned Henry Tonks. The action takes place in parallel with, and subsequent to, the events of Life Class, again moving from the studios of London to the hospital tents of World War One.  A talented artist, Elinor Brooke initially strives not to acknowledge the war, spending her time with Bloomsbury pacifists even while others head to the front: her peers from the Slade, her lover, and even her brother Toby – with whom she shares an unbreakable bond and an unspeakable secret.  It is only when Toby is reported “Missing, Believed Killed” that she begins to engage with the reality of the conflict taking place around her. Elinor’s quest to find out the truth about her brother’s death eventually takes her to Sidcup hospital, where the casualties with most severe facial injuries receive treatment and surgery. With Elinor’s grief and need for answers as its narrative driving force, Toby’s Room is a less ambiguous read than Life Class, but it is no less disquieting, exploring, as it does, some complex and harrowing issues.

The most powerful image in Toby’s Room is that of the mask. Tin masks are worn by some of the most disfigured men in Sidcup hospital, where Tonks now works recording these soldiers’ wounds and the painful, painstaking, and not always successful stages of their reconstructive surgery. Among the casualties is Kit Neville, once the arrogant, outspoken toast of the art world. Out in public, the mask he wears shields those around him from the horrifying extent of his disfigurement. But the motionless silvery covering is unnerving; it neutralises all hint of expression and allows the observer’s imagination to run rampant, visualising the ruins beneath. Though Kit’s is the most literal, all the central figures in this novel wear metaphorical masks. Barker examines her characters’ experiences of dislocation, the breach between their inner selves and the faces they show the world as they struggle, variously, to come to terms with their grief, loss, sexuality, the trauma of their wartime experiences or the burden of knowledge that may be better left untold.

Repeating the successful formula of her acclaimed Regeneration novels, Barker’s narrative moves between a hazy hospital present tense and nightmarish recollections of the front, expertly interweaving fictional characters and historical figures such as Tonks. Yet only in  a few memorable set piece scenes does Toby’s Room begin to match the devastating emotional clout of that earlier trilogy. Perhaps this is simply because these now tried and tested narrative ingredients no longer feel original. Or is it more a consequence of Barker’s characters? Confused and self-absorbed, Elinor is undoubtedly a challenging creation. While all the characters seem mired to some extent, unable to imagine a future beyond the fighting, Elinor’s circularity brings to the narrative a sense of lethargy. Many families of missing soldiers must have waited in a similar stasis, denied the cathartic outpouring of grief by a basic lack of information. Yet Elinor’s coldness and the mixed messages she sends infect the novel in a more fundamental way, and somehow I found I could not fully invest in her story. It is only in the book’s final third, and in the presence of the engagingly bitter and damaged Kit Neville, that this novel truly comes alive. I could have read more about Sidcup than Barker offers here: more on the hospital’s pioneering surgery and so much more about Kit’s heart-wrenching struggle to re-emerge amongst civilians who can no longer even hold his gaze.

Overall this is a well researched and skilfully written glimpse into the doubled turmoil of coming of age in a wartime context. There’s much to admire here but – to me, at least – its spotlight felt misdirected. Life Class and Toby’s Room are both worth reading but if you only have space in your life for one series of Pat Barker World War One novels, I’d still recommend Regeneration over these more recent forays across that poppy-strewn field.

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Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard by Sara Wheeler

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.


First published: 2001 (Vintage digital ed. 2010)
My copy: bought on Kindle
First read and reviewed by me: September 2011

Memorable quote: “Through his story Cherry reached out to something universal: the eclipse of youth, and the realm of abandoned dreams and narrowing choices that is the future.”

I never particularly thought of myself as the sort of person who reads biographies just for fun, but it turns out that was only because I simply hadn’t tackled the right biographies before. This was the work that re-educated me. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was one of the survivors of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Antarctic expedition – a physical survivor at least: reading The Worst Journey in the WorldCherry’s superbly affecting account of the experience, left me feeling that, emotionally, some part of him remained behind on the ice, along with the corpses of the midwinter travelling companions for whom he came to care so deeply. It’s a view that Wheeler echoes in this illuminating account of his life – a life and a retelling that certainly rivals most novels in terms of being a well-written and emotionally engaging. I suppose it helps that the subject is something on which I’m particularly hooked, but this biography goes far beyond polar exploration. Indeed I don’t think you even need to be an Antarctic obsessive to enjoy it. Apsley was born in the late years of the nineteenth century, and he died in 1959, so in many ways his story is that of the twentieth-century: fascinating and brutal, taking in two earth-shattering wars, and the unstoppable march of progress. The polar expedition, and particularly his winter journey to Cape Crozier,  in search of penguins’ eggs with Edward “Bill” Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, becomes the lens that gives focus to everything else in his rather melancholy life.

Wheeler describes the winter trek, Cherry’s titular “Worst Journey,” as the experience that both “redeemed and destroyed” him. Her account of Cherry’s privileged early years shows him boarding the Terra Nova in a quest for meaning and self-definition, caught up in the nebulous reactionism that I’ve always felt is one of the most fascinating aspects of the brief Edwardian age. The old imperial and religious certainties of his father’s Victorian generation did not fully convince young Cherry, but neither had he found an adequate replacement for the void in his life left by their absence. Drawing closely on Cherry’s own writing, as well as accounts of him by polar comrades, friends and relatives – including interviews with his widow – Wheeler shows how he finally found that meaning in comradeship through adversity and through the close bond he developed with Bill and Birdie. This is apparent from Cherry’s own book but Wheeler expands the notion in fascinating ways. Cherry: A Life of Apsley-Cherry Garrard draws on records and anecdotes of his childhood to mark the beginnings of its subject’s quest, then chronicles in detail his post-expedition years, showing how his polar experiences defined, ennobled and finally, tormented him. Less than a year after the winter journey that brought them together, both Bill and Birdie were dead.

Sara Wheeler clearly has huge affection for her subject, but neither is she blind to his faults. Her narrative does not neglect either the less appealing, increasingly curmudgeonly, side of Cherry’s character or the uncomfortable prejudices of his class, and of his era in general. Such ugliness is balanced here in the same way as it is – less consciously – in Cherry’s own work: through the sheer beauty of the prose and the descriptions. Having visited and stayed in Antarctica herself, Wheeler is well-equipped to evoke both the beauty and the danger of the icy environment that Cherry and his comrades had to negotiate.

This is a brilliant companion volume to The Worst Journey in the World. Wheeler’s embellishments, both imaginative and scholarly, really draw out some of Cherry’s references, exploring his fascinating psyche, and also narrating some aspects – such as the women in his life – that are conspicuously absent from his own carefully edited recollections. Visually, this is also a satisfying volume, augmented as it is by an appendix of well-chosen photographs. Here we see Apsley as a baby;  picnicking as a young man; dashingly uniformed during the war; and dressing-gown clad in his twilight years. Such images add a valuable wider context to Cherry’s story but even here it is Herbert Ponting’s iconic polar photographs that dominate (these can also now be viewed online thanks to the superb Freeze Frame gallery). These powerful polar images linger on in the mind long after the book is closed (or in my case, Kindle switched off), just as the beauty, danger, love and loss of his brief Antarctic years came to dominate the rest of its subject’s haunted life.

Reading The Worst Journey in the World left me enthralled but also frustrated in places that the author hid so much behind the words of his companions, repeatedly quoting from the letters and diaries of other men when his own words were always so much more more eloquent and moving. Wheeler expounds this as an issue of respect, but also of confidence. There were two Apsley Cherry-Garrards, she reminds her readers: the survivor, doer, explorer and the man who suffered from crippling anxiety. “Know yourself,” he wrote. “Accept yourself, be yourself. That seems a good rule. But which self? Even the simplest of us are complicated enough.” There is an important lesson about self-hood here for everyone. Hopefully we do not all need to endure the horrors of a midwinter trek to Cape Crozier to acknowledge it.

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Ice Road by Gillian Slovo

Ice Road

First Published: 2004 by Little, Brown (Virago ed. 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “But there is a limit to the things you can hide from yourself and my own limit recently has got smaller. I’ve learned to read, you see. Better that I had not for now I can read about those other Arctic expeditions and about those many Arctic deaths. My reading tells me that, no matter how bad things get, some of us will live. Some always do. The only question is how many.”

The intersection between small-scale, individual stories and the broader narratives of history and nationhood is the issue at the heart of this heavyweight historical saga. Irina Davydovna is a cleaner. She is used to being invisible, largely ignored by the important men whose offices and homes she maintains. Shielded by her illiteracy, she considers herself outside the story, an audience member rather than an actor in the volatile history of her city and her time: “What do I know of power? “Of conquest? Of position? I should not have opinions: I should not judge. What I should do instead is watch.” But Irina’s city is Leningrad, Russia; her time the volatile Soviet era of the 1930s and 40s a time and place in which nobody is exempt and where personal and national narratives cannot be so easily disentangled.

As you might expect, Ice Road is a weighty read in all respects: a hefty volume dealing with some complex and themes and a brutal period of history characterised by so much suffering and surveillance. Punctuated by chapters that narrate key moments in a manner almost reminiscent of a Greek chorus, the novel does not shy away from the politics of life under Stalin, particularly the assassination of Kirov and its resulting regime of paranoia and punishment. But, like the calm at the epicentre of a storm, these – sometimes oddly toned – impersonal chapters are actually far less powerful than the character-focused narratives, the waves emanating out from them, that show how their effects are felt.  The novel’s emotional heart is how these onslaughts affect Irina and those people she comes increasingly to care for as her core of icy detachment begins to thaw. This diverse list includes Boris Aleksandrovich, the Party member who feels his powerlessness increase along with his sense of political disillusionment; his beautiful daughter Natasha, who finds happiness with her Kolya, a model proletariat factory worker; Anton Antonovich an historian who knows the danger of looking to the past in this time of revisionism and future-focused rhetoric; and Anya, the ultimate survivor, an orphan with an unknown but doubtlessly brutal past that Anton brings into his life. Through these figures, Slovo personalises the tragedy making it at once more comprehensible and more excruciating. Not all these characters will survive, but their stories and their memories linger on even while it is illegal to speak of them.

Ice Road is bookended by two epic feats of survival. Inevitably, the novel culminates in the siege of Leningrad, but these days of starvation and endurance are prefigured, for Irina at least, by her opening experiences onboard the ill-fated Arctic  exploration ship Chelyuskin (disclaimer: I didn’t know there was polar exploration in this book when I picked it up, imagine my delight!) Irina Davydovna joins the crew of this celebrated vessel as a steward and although she strives to think of herself as quite separate from the history-making politicians, sailors and scientists, it is onboard Chelyuskin that she learns to read and, later – as the ice closes in –  comes to realise that, in order to survive, she cannot stand alone. Polar narratives typically focus on the experiences of the more privileged and educated crew members, primarily for practical reasons – since these are the individuals best equipped to record and transmit their experiences. I appreciated the way that Slovo’s uneducated, and steadfastly practical narrator inverts this trope, not just in the beautifully described Arctic wastelands, but throughout the novel. Irina consistently prioritises the everyday practicalities of lived experience over highfalutin ideologies, be they communist, romantic, nationalistic or otherwise. Sometimes frustrating, but frequently wise, she is an unforgettable creation.

Impressively researched, Ice Road also feels intensely personal. Although Slovo is writing about an unfamiliar time and place the struggle she evokes between the individual and the broader strokes of history is universal. Slovo herself was born in South Africa and it is not hard to imagine how her own experiences as the daughter of famous anti-apartheid campaigners inform both her choice of subject matter for Ice Road and the emotional power – often devastating in its understatement – that she unleashes within it. This will undoubtedly be one of my top 10 reads of 2013.

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Armadale by Wilkie Collins

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.


First published: 1866 (Penguin Classics New Edition, 1995)
My copy: bought in paperback
First read and reviewed by me: October 2010

Memorable quote: “I caught myself measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death.”

Dan Simmons’ captivating fictionalisation of Wilkie Collins in Drood left me yearning to read something by the great man himself. Collins is one of my favourite Victorian novelists and Armadale, though not as consistently paced as, say The Woman in White or The Moonstone has to be one of his best novels. The plot revolves around one of Collins’s favourite tropes, the mysterious double: in this case two young men both with the name of Allan Armadale, a title commanding a rich financial legacy and a less desirable history of murder and betrayal. Like much Victorian sensation fiction, the plot is full of twists, turns, ominous dreams, assumed identities and unlikely coincidences but what holds it all together and makes this novel gripping – rather than simply overblown – is the strength of Collins’ characterisations. He delves brilliantly into the minds of his creations sharing their fantasies, motivations and fears – rational or otherwise. There are also some wonderfully realised supporting characters: a doting old gentleman fostering an outrageous infatuation for a dangerous woman; the doctor of a sinister sanatorium committed only to the pretence of ethical standards; and a bedridden wife besieged by jealousy and hatred towards any woman who even approaches her largely undesirable husband.

The two Armadales could hardly be more different: one is an over-privileged impetuous buffoon while the other is a cautious loner whose belief in dark omens has led to him spending years living in the shadow of his fear that the sins of his father will be revisited on him, the son. Both these deeply flawed individuals can be frustrating at times and the first part of the narrative, which establishes their relationship, does drag in places. But it’s worth persevering as the pace increases quite dramatically from the second third onwards, particularly once Collins has introduced his flame haired femme-fatale.  Lydia Gwilt is a fortune hunter, bigamist, opium addict, poisoner and one of the most fascinating female characters in Victorian fiction. Many nineteenth-century critics were appalled by Miss Gwilt’s immorality, with one reviewer describing her as “One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction” (H. F. Chorley in The Athenaeum 2 June 1866). But her depiction is not simply that of a one-dimensional villain. As I followed Lydia’s fortunes, and the fortune hunting that draws her in to the Armadale mystery, I found my reactions to her cycling through a whole range of emotions: horror, sympathy, a hope that she will escape her past and live honestly, but also a perverse desire for her scheme to succeed (since both Armadales are quite frustrating figures who don’t always inspire as much sympathy as they perhaps should).

Lydia Gwilt is the dark and enigmatic heart of this gripping novel which begins in the Alps and ends in a London Sanatorium, taking in Barbados, the Isle of Man, the Norfolk Broads and various European cities along the way. As with all novels in this most melodramatic of genres some suspension of disbelief is required to fully enjoy it, but if you can make that leap, then there’s a lot here to savour.

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When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones

when nights were cold

Published: 2012 by Mantle
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Surely, I thought, if my father could travel through the tropics and into the Arctic Circle, if my neighbour could reach the Antarctic and walk on ice, if Frank Black was going to Oxford, Catherine and I could at least get out of Dulwich,.”

Behold! A piece of polar (or polar-related) fiction in which nobody goes to the Pole! I have been pondering for some time the possibilities of a work in which this happens – or, more specifically, doesn’t happen. So much of what fascinates about polar narratives is the sense of obsession, the siren call of the Ice and the challenges of the unknown. Does this call necessarily need to be heeded to be of interest? I’ve always suspected not, and Jones’ psychological chiller of a novel confirms this. Shackleton and Scott and the journeys they make are important presences in When Nights Were Cold, but they are largely imaginative presences. This is a tale about the chasm between dreams of adventure and the circumscribed boundaries of daily life, especially those considerable restrictions faced by women in the early years of the twentieth-century. With its supremely – fascinatingly – unreliable narrator, it is also a tale about the often dangerously concealed crevasses that lie between imagination and reality.

But now a disclaimer, it weren’t for the icy subject matter I probably wouldn’t have picked up this novel at all. I’ve read two of Jones’ previous works, The Earthquake Bird and Water Lily and while in both cases I enjoyed her well-crafted characters and suspenseful plotting, I ultimately found myself frustrated by her endings, which felt disappointingly rushed – almost as if she’d run out of steam and, despite all the subtlety and tension of what had come before, now just wanted to get it over. With Water Lily, particularly, I went from being unable to put it down to almost throwing it across the room in annoyance. Fellow blogger, Lady Fancifull, has written about feeling similarly cheated by Jones’ endings: check out her great review of The Earthquake Bird here. She’s also read When Nights Were Cold and warned me that it didn’t meet her 4 star review criteria, so I wasn’t holding out too much hope when I picked up this one, but as a polar fiction completest I had to come to my own conclusions.

When Nights Were Cold tells the story of Grace Farringdon, an awkward young woman who follows the news of Shackleton and Scott’s expeditions with interest, yearning for adventures of her own. But the claustrophobic confines of Grace’s family home stand in sharp contrast to her fantasies of travel and it is only through considerable determination and dissembling that she is able to gain a place at Cadlin Women’s College. There she forms the Antarctic Exploration Society, to follow, discuss and roleplay the journeys of her polar heroes and later to undertake adventures of their own.  The Antarctic may be out of reach for them, but Jones’ women seek challenging landscapes nearer to home, mountain climbing first in Wales and later in the Alps.  The society brings together four very different types of women: the meek future doctor’s wife; the outspoken daughter of an actress; a haughty independent orphan, and Grace herself. Against these vividly realised and distinctive characters Grace is an enigma: although she is our narrator her reminisces slip treacherously between present and past, fact and fiction, creating a tone of increasing unease.  “Last night I tried to climb the Matterhorn again,”the novel’s opening line recalls Rebecca: immediately invoking Du Maurier’s famous atmosphere of mystery and menace. It is clear that some tragedy occurred in the Alps, but precisely what happened and just how far Grace is responsible is a knot that Jones allows us only gradually to untangle.

Unreliable narrators fascinate me, so I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Grace who manages to evoke a striking mix of revulsion and sympathy. The novel also vividly depicts the limited but hard won freedom of life in an Edwardian woman’s college, as well the passionate female sentiment on both sides of the suffragette movement. But the scenes of adventure – both real and imagined – are what really captivate. Just as we know the Terra Nova expedition that Grace so avidly follows will end in tragedy, so the hints of unknown disaster throughout the narrative ensure that each Alpine scene is tautly gripping. Jones also draws heavily on the lives of real Edwardian lady mountaineers; women who endured not only the physical hardship of the ascent but social stigma of their daring to climb at all.

My overall verdict?  This was an interesting read in so many ways, as but as with other books I’ve tackled by this author, the promise far outweighed its final delivery. Although it felt less rushed than that of Water Lily, the ending was still a bitter disappointment. Jones does seem to be a writer who can take her readers on enthralling journeys but to rather lacklustre destinations. There is a point at which Grace discovers that the lure of the summit is more powerful and impressive than its actual achievement: it’s a fascinating lesson, but one that is reflected perhaps rather too sharply in the structure of this and the other Susanna Jones novels I’ve read.  All the same, I believe this particular book is still a trip well worth taking, for the the thrill of the ride and for the many ideas it encompasses.

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Drood by Dan Simmons

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.

This week I’ve started to get excited in anticipation of the new Dan Simmons novel, The Abominable, coming in the autumn. Simmons’ seems to specialise in unlikely combinations and scenarios that really shouldn’t work and indeed they don’t always (despite some good moments, Black Hills felt like a mess of a novel to me) but when they do work, they do so spectacularly. The Terror (his horror tinged re-imagining of John Franklin’s Arctic Expedition) is one of my all time favourite reads, so I was going to post the review I wrote of that this week, but when I came to it, I realised that what I’m really yearning to do is to to reread that whole novel and review it then afresh. So here instead are my thoughts on what Simmons did next...


Published: 2009 by Quercus
My copy: bought in paperback
First read and reviewed by me: October 2010

Memorable quote: “Had I conceived of him in one of my novels I would not have described him as I met him in reality – too strange, too threatening, too physically grotesque for fiction, my dear Wilkie. But in reality, as you well know, such phantom figures do exist. One passes them on the street. One finds them during nocturnal walks through Whitechapel or other parts of London. And often their stories are stranger than anything a mere novelist could devise.”

OK, let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum; it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. I can also understand how Simmons came to write it. There’s something very satisfying about being able to trace the path of a writer’s interest and research, and that process is most apparent here. In his research for his previous, absorbing novel of doomed polar exploration, The Terror, Simmons undoubtedly consulted The Frozen Deep, a play responding to the unknown fate of the Franklin expedition written by Wilkie Collins under the heavy guidance of Charles Dickens. The fascinating – although often strained – friendship and working relationship between these two writers then became the subject of this, Simmons’ next novel, which also speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Narrated by Collins, Drood tells the highly fictionalised story of the twilight years of “the Inimitable” Charles Dickens, from his near death experience at the Staplehurst rail disaster to the end of his days. It is at Staplehurst that Dickens first meets a sinister stranger known as “Drood” and as he pursues this shadowy figure he drags his friend Collins into the darkest parts of London, the Bluegate slums, crypts and opium dens as well as the secret avenues of sewer passages beneath them. The cover’s emblazoned recommendation from Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy and a known Lovecraft aficionado) gives a clear indication of the sort of twisty gaslit menace this novel conjures. It all gets a bit B-movie in places but Simmons writes with such panache that I was more than happy to be suckered in.

This isn’t straightforward historical horror, though, the book also takes time to focus on Collins’ stubbornly unconventional life: his writing career and obvious rivalry with Dickens, as well as his relationships with the two mistresses he maintained but steadfastly refused to marry. For some, I can imagine these sorts of digressions would detract from the pace of the overall novel, but for me they added to it. I am a big fan of Wilkie Collins’s work and love a good slab of troubled nineteenth-century social etiquette. In Drood, I felt Collins’ minute and fussy ruminations on dining out at his club, servant troubles, and his often lukewarm critical reception as a writer provided a brilliant foil to the more fantastic elements of the plot. Ultimately, the device that succeeds in enmeshing these two very different modes of narrative is Collins’ unreliability as a narrator. He is an opium addict and becomes increasingly more dependent on and addled by the drug as the story progresses. So as the fantasy and horror at Drood’s murderous power increases, so too do the reader’s doubts that Wilkie Collins is telling the truth. It works brilliantly.

Simmons mostly captures the tone of the period very well, and both Dickens and Collins emerge as hugely convincing personalities, if neither particularly likeable ones. But as a Victorian Literature geek I should probably add, in the interest of fairness, that I was frustrated in places by a few anachronisms and Americanisms creeping in that I’m amazed no editor picked up. Overall, though, this is incredibly well done. If you like your novels big and your historical fiction darkly packed with murder, mesmerism, ghosts and addiction, then this is absolutely the book to which you should treat yourself in good time for Halloween.

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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black

First published: 1983 (Vintage paperback ed. 1998)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “I had fallen under some sort of spell of the kind that certain places exude and it drew me, my imaginings, my longings, my curiosity, my whole spirit towards itself.”

In the supernatural/horror genre particularly, some tales have become so well known – so often quoted, appropriated and re-imagined – that they have come to exist in the popular imagination in a way that is almost detached from their original source text. The works of H.P. Lovecraft are a prime example, having spawned so many imitators, artworks, role-playing games and internet memes. Yet when I read “The Call of Cthulhu” for the first time, I was really struck by its raw power, and only then appreciated fully the quality of imagination that came to inspire so many appropriations. Though very different in content, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black would seem to be a similar cultural case:  a staple of CGSE/A-level syllabi with multiple film and television adaptations, as well as a long running stage version its premise is so well known and so frequently referenced that it’s almost possible to feel you know it without having actually read the original. This false but pervasive feeling of pre-existing familiarity is probably why it’s taken me so long to pick up this slim volume.  Tackling the text for the first time has given me a firm appreciation of its artistry – this really is the most classic of ghost stories with all the ingredients necessary to deliver a sublime intellectual chill – but despite its technical brilliance this wasn’t quite as satisfyingly unsettling a read as I’d hoped, perhaps because it’s almost too polished.

There is a timeless quality to Hill’s tale. Published in the early 1980s, it is written in the best tradition of classic Victorian ghost tales: a story recounted on Christmas Eve with the family all assembled. This in itself is interesting as Hill’s protagonist Arthur Kipps (my second literary encounter with an Arthur Kipps this month) is eager to emphasise his modernity and distance from the Victorian past. Exact dates are never mentioned and although there are details that ground the action in the early twentieth century, Kipps – despite his assertions to the contrary – feels like a thoroughly Victorian figure, almost as if he is a man out of his time. This effect is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel  and is, I’m sure, deliberate in a tale that explores so compellingly the enduring and malignant impact of the past on the present and future.

A junior solicitor eager for greater responsibility, Kipps is sent to the marshy environs of Crythin Gifford to sort through the documents of Mrs Drablow, late of Eel Marsh House. This isolated dwelling is separated from the mainland by a causeway and is accessible only at low tide. Vividly described, the house is the primary source of the novel’s eerie power and the scenes in which Kipps explores and even spends the night there are gripping and atmospheric. The townsfolk of Crythin Gifford are reluctant to visit the place or even to discuss Mrs Drablow and it is not long before Kipps discovers he has become a part of story far more affecting than the legal bureaucracy he had anticipated.

If you like ghost stories this is definitely a work for which you should make time (if you haven’t done so already) and it can easily be read in one or two sittings.  This neatly crafted tale impressed me with its controlled menace and particularly the way it draws on so many of the most effective tropes of the genre, such as the protagonist gaining a canine companion whose raised hackles and soft growls immediately heighten the sense of supernatural threat. Hill seems deliberately to draw attention to her use of these conventions in a way that I found intriguing: Kipps has the dog foisted upon him by a local concerned at the prospect of him staying at Eel Marsh House alone. I can see why this book is taught in school literature classes, it’s a masterclass in good supernatural fiction. But this polish also detracts from its power – for me at least. I was hugely impressed but in an academic way, not the heart-pounding reaction that the best supernatural tales can evoke. Perhaps it is hard to experience afresh so renowned a tale, or perhaps it is just a case that ghost stories that are slightly more ragged in their construction and imagery can just be more surprising. Writing the above has crystallised for me just how much I would now like to see the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black; it is such an engaging story and the buzz, immediacy and communality of live theatre could well add the spice that was lacking from this novel’s otherwise refined list of ingredients.

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