on 8 April 2002
This is very possibly the best book I have read. I greatly admire Bainbridge's writing, but even she has here surpassed herself. Her prose is spare yet precise and her writing is so skilful that she tells you everything in an astonishingly few words. She blends fact and fiction so convincingly that the reader is there with these poor men. Brave yet foolhardy, loyal yet desperate, she brings their famous and tragic story to life in a way I have never before encountered. A short book and one which you savour, trying to make it last, yet knowing that you will soon have finished it and go right back to the beginning to read it again. READ IT!
on 12 May 2002
When Captain Scott reached the south pole in 1912, he did so with a party of 4 other men. All very different characters, all with seperate motivations, backgrounds and outlooks. That's part of why the story of their expedition is still so fascinating. Beryl Bainbridge takes each important stage of the expedition, starting with the endless fundraising in England and the first meetings of the crew and finishing with Captain Oates' long walk into the blizzard and has a different explorer narrate it. She gets under the skin of each man so very perfectly and convincingly that it's sometimes difficult to remember that these are their fictionalised thoughts, not their journals and letters.
As someone who's read many of those journals and letters, I found each voice and attitude wonderfully realised. We all know how it's going to end, but the journey is a compelling one. Each man's frailties and strengths are touched on lightly but with conviction, in a way that seems utterly credible. Not just a book for armchair explorers but for anyone interested in how men's minds work.
And, however your mind works, at least one of these men will capture your imagination. Oates is the popular choice but I've always preferred Bowers. Witty cynicism is all very well, but in a tough spot, you can't beat hard-graft and demented optimism.
This is a fictionalised version of the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Scott. Each chapter is narrated by a different member of the team. Knowing from the outset that these were the ones who died making the final journey to the South Pole made it all the more poignant. It is a beautifully written book which makes all the characters come alive.
Some of the errors made by the expedition are (seen in hindsight) unbelievable. Few of the team had any serious experience in either skiing or moving sledges with dog teams. The ponies were unsuitable for the terrain, as were the motor vehicles. Scott eventually chose (against all previous plans) to take five rather than four on the final push to the Pole - this had a damaging effect on their supplies which he failed to take into account.
Bainbridge treats all the men with honesty and sensitivity. She exhibits a real understanding of the mindset of the officer class of the Edwardian era - the divisions between officers and men, the feeling that using huge dog teams was "unsporting" and the virtue of stoicism.
A lovely book that led me to a greater understanding of a group of men who were heroic while at the same time slightly insane!
Half-way through this novel, I was so disappointed that I looked up its Amamzon reviews, found that they were all positive, and decided to carry on with it. Sadly, I haven't changed my views. This slim novel, based on the famous and tragic expedition to the South Pole, springs no surprises, nor did I expect any. But for me (and it seems I'm alone here) the characters never really came to life, the story skipped around too much - flashbacks, different viewpoints - and all in all I found it a very unsatisfactory read. The abrupt ending didn't help; I felt that so much more could have been made of the deterioration of the health and the conditions of the explorers during their heroic stuggle towards the end of their doomed expedition. When I reached the last page, I turned it over, expecting at least a little more, but that was it. I would love to know whether I'm alone in my opinion of this novel; is there anyone else out there who agrees with me?
on 16 January 2011
"Living ashore hits men differently. Some shuffle back into it like they've found an old pair of slippers and others can't walk easy, no matter how they're shod."
The Birthday Boys is a fictionalised account of Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, delivering at once a refresher course in historical events as well as a gifted writer's interpretation of those men's character and the dialogue that may have taken place.
In the opening chapters the story richly recreates the attitudes of early 1900's society, a society that celebrated, supported, sponsored and revered exploration, adventure and discovery. As the story develops, it is the harsh conditions and the challenges facing the expedition that are just as richly recreated, but in Bainbridge's typical style of word economy.
Each chapter is narrated by a different character on the expedition, painting a vivid picture of their own disposition and motivations for setting off on the trip as well as the harsh reality they faced as they struggled to be the first to reach the South Pole and then return alive. The book is a wonderful exploration of old fashioned virtues and manners, of courage and character under fire, a bold and startling picture of the challenges faced by those intrepid men. It's also a rich insight into Robert Falcon Scott, the leader of the expedition. Described in the book thus:
"He's absolutely sound as regards what's right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn't stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In these circumstances, it's a dangerous trait."
we are exposed to his strengths, weaknesses and the tragic choices he made that lead to the expedition's success but also failure and ultimate tragedy.
This would make a good read for men who love adventure, even of the vicarious and arm chair sort, for people who love history and books that revisit historical events, and also for readers who enjoy a good character examination. It's only 181 pages long - typical Bainbridge - which makes it concise enough to keep most people engaged. But it's not a light read and it's not laugh-a-minute so it's not for everyone.
on 22 September 2015
I really enjoyed this book. As usual for a Beryl Bainbridge book it is a slim volume but all the best for it. She has the laudable ability to paint a picture with few words, no voluminous and unnecessary prose but instead a beautifully poetic and incise use of language. The story, a series of individual chapters told by the participants of the final expedition team, was both fascinating and dramatic. I hesitate to say enlightening as after all this is a novel and I can understand those reviewers who claim that they have learnt nothing new. However I personally learned a great deal from this novel, accepting that I am in no way an authority on the subject matter, whilst enjoying it in the manner that it is meant to be enjoyed and that is as a novel based on fact and not a documentary. I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a good yarn based around one of the greatest, if unsuccessful, feats of human endeavour.
on 5 October 2013
There are many biographies and histories written about Scott and his polar party, but Bainbridge brings the human element to the story, reflecting on the people, their motivations and ultimately their feelings as they walked towards death.
The book is written in five chapters, one for each of the final polar party, written from their perspective.
The common man, Petty Officer Evans, with his worries about money and his drink problems opens the book as the expedition sets out from Cardiff.
Class is forever present, and the final four chapters deal with the officer class.
Edward Wilson, deeply religious but leading the scientific programme. Highly reserved, he's still a person that everyone looks up to and consults for advice, which he gives reluctantly:
"Better to say nothing than to condemn, and to laugh with than to criticise, and so much happier."
Wilson was Scott's anchor, he protected the men from Scott's wrath and yet allowed Scott to get his problems off his chest, easing his stress.
Scott was a man of contrasting passions - at once the naval officer striving to lead, and yet he struggled to stamp his authority, feeling the weight of the entire endeavour weighing heavily on his shoulders. He was also a man of contradictions: criticising Shackleton from previous expeditions for carelessness and lacking attention to detail, and accusing Gran of laziness; yet Scott failed to calculate that five men attempting the final assault on the pole, when they had rations and space for only four could be disastrous.
Bowers had been with Wilson and Cherry-Garrard (who wasn't chosen to make the final attempt on the pole) on the "worst journey in the world" and it's only by reading this novel where he's presented as such a strong, driven character, that I'm now surprised that of all the party he didn't pull through and make it to One Ton Depot and so to safety. However, his death, like those of the rest of the party has ensured their place in history.
Bainbridge presents Oates as a complex character, often in opposition to Scott. Yet, it's his chapter - the final one, when describing Evans' final moments of suffering and panic, that the class between them is slammed shut and the men are revealed. I've read many books about this episode of polar exploration, but I doubt I'll ever read such a powerful, humanistic approach to it.
I have never read any of Bainbridge's other books, but I was deeply impressed by this one. She got into the heart of her characters, even down to the writing style of each chapter - from the simple, somewhat stilted language used by Evans, to the beautiful prose representing Wilson and Scott.
on 12 October 2001
As good a read as anyone could want. Beryl Bainbridge captures the essence of Scott and his colleagues, their preparations for the trip and the enormous (& fatal) challenge they took on. For me the book brought the people on the expedition to life.
on 30 November 2013
This is a cleverly constructed book - but ultimately I think I was a little disappointed.
Bainbridge sets out to tell part of the story of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole - starting as the Terra Nova (Scott's ship) leaves Cardiff in June 1910, and ending in early 1912 when Oates leaves the tent to die. She does this via a series of 5 fictionalised episodes, each written in the first person by one of the five who died on their return from the Pole - Evans, Wilson, Scott himself, Bowers and Oates. Each of the 5 tell a part of the whole story, and a little of their own story. So the book is not entirely fact, and it is not entirely fiction, though is based on historical fact which Bainbridge has researched in impressive detail.
Using what is therefore a rather novel framework, Bainbridge embroiders each of the five's account, in an attempt to look deeper into what made each of them 'tick', as individuals. And she takes on board quite a lot of the more recent critical perceptions of the expedition, which claim that all was certainly not as first described by Scott himself (in his diaries) and in other early accounts.
I was disappointed because ultimately, despite the intriguing structure of the book, and also its readability, it told me nothing very new about Scott and his companions. For example, in the Wilson episode, Wilson describes the appalling conditions encountered when he, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard travelled to Cape Crozier in 1911 in search of emperor penguin eggs. Other reviewers marvel at Bainbridge's descriptive prowess in telling Wilson's story. But for me, her account does not bear comparison with Cherry-Garrard's own first-hand telling of the story (see 'The Worst Journey in the World'), published in 1922.
Scott was an enigma. And, for me, he remains an enigma. This book was a pleasant, if not very demanding read. But not a lot more.
on 26 October 1999
All my life I've been fascinated by polar expeditions. I read this novel several years ago, and still get goosebumps thinking about the point-blank loneliness and utter misery of these men...and about the sad conceit of the whole expedition. But the novel is more than just a chilling travel story - it explores the extremes of lost-ness.