One hundred years ago, Robert Falcon Scott and four other men left the other members of the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and set out to claim the South Pole. When they arrived there on 19 January 1912, they discovered that the Norwegian explorer Roald Admundsen had beaten them to it by a mere matter of days. Neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans survived the arduous trek back to their comrades.
A century later in London, a young artist Birdie Bowers, named by her parents in honour of their famous and tragic relative Henry `Birdie' Bowers, is obsessed with finding the tent in which the frozen remains of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were discovered and buried a short time after their deaths. The tent was located just eleven miles from a food depot. Birdie believes that the answer to the mystery of why Scott couldn't reach this safety lies buried in the ice with him. His diary and those of the other men had been rescued but they didn't provide the answers Birdie seeks, just tantalising glimpses of five men descending into their fate.
Adam Caird is the man who has fallen in love with Birdie, a woman he has taken upon himself to rescue and love and so escort to the other side of the world. Neither of them were looking for love and both find it difficult to speak its language but, as they prepare for their expedition to the South Pole, they learn as much about each other as they do about the men they are trying to find. When they finally reach Antarctica and face true isolation and real danger, they realise how impossible it would be to survive without the other.
For life, love, fear and death are the themes of Dead Men. Removed from society and civilisation, in the white out of a snow storm and with the threat of six months of frigid darkness, Scott and his men, as well as Birdie and Adam, have to face something quite primeval about their existence and place in the world.
Dead Men contains several voices. In large part, we have the present tense first person narrative of Adam, revealing to us his feelings for the younger and extraordinary Birdie as well as his increasing fascination for Scott and his men. The only distraction for me were Adam's frequent tears. In addition to his story we have pieces from the past, told in third person, as we observe the discoverers of the remains of Scott, the other men of the Terra Nova expedition waiting for rescue from the ice, Roald Admunson, Scott's wife and so on. This variety of perspectives, times and continents provides a rich depth for the mystery.
There is also another presence at work here and it's the one that exerts the pull on the lives and fate of the men who explore this ice wasteland as well as those of the people left behind or follow in their footsteps.
Dead Men grips in more ways than one. It is a historical puzzle but it is also a polar adventure, a love story, a horror story and a ghostly tale. It challenges the conventions of what one can expect from a historical mystery - Dead Men is not an action thriller nor is it a conventional romance. It is, however, poetically told and I was as moved by it as, at times, I was frightened. It's a gentle, relatively short and well-written tale focusing on characters past and present with whom we quickly become involved. We many not know much about the previous life of our narrator, Adam, or too many details about the men from the past such as Cherry but the quality of the prose means we know all we need to with a skilful brevity.
Dead Men is a debut novel by Richard Pierce and it is an excellent one. His meticulous research into the story of Scott's last expedition shines through, as does the dangerous, cold splendour of Antarctica and the adventurous spirit of the men who strove to conquer her. This review is from a review copy.
on 20 August 2012
First, a confession: I'm not interested in history. I know that makes me a Really Bad Person in lots of people's eyes, but I can't help it; I'm only interested in now and the future. Yet I found this book utterly compelling. The quality of the writing drew me in straight away, and I enjoyed the choreography of the dance between past and present. I enjoy travel writing, and the different locations were beautifully drawn. And I loved the characters. There seems such a vogue for unsympathetic characters in literary books at present, which may be great art but I simply don't want to spend time with them. But Adam and Birdie, Nev and Welland, even the more minor characters like Helge, were all such interesting people that I read more and more slowly as I got closer to the end of the book, because I didn't want it to end.
I could perhaps have deducted one point of a star here or there for a sentence that had room for improvement, or for a momentary lack of clarity - for example, I still don't understand what happened to Adam near the end of the book (I won't say more; no spoilers in this review). But I enjoyed the book so much that I can't summon the will to be picky.
Birdie says, at one point, 'If you visualise something - doesn't matter if you're writing or painting - you're much more likely to be able to take your audience with you. If you just make something up that you don't really believe in, then it doesn't mean a thing.' This book is fully and beautifully visualised, and what's more, it has a heart suffused with compassion. Highly recommended.
on 28 December 2012
I enjoyed Dead Men very much. Initially uncertain if the contemporary strand of the story could prove as compelling as the interwoven polar scenes of a century ago (which bring Scott's ill-fated expedition palpably to life), as the book progressed I became just as intrigued by Adam and Birdie, an apparently ill-matched pair, and where their relationship would lead. It also became clear that, to work as a novel rather than simply another historical account, the story needed a contemporary narrative and characters to lend it perspective, contrast and relevance to readers today.
Birdie in particular - a kind of wilful female Banksy who happens to share the name of one of Scott's perished colleagues and whose obsession to visit Antarctica and discover their long-buried tent drives much of the narrative - is a genuinely original, complex and fascinating creation. Never predictable, or even that likeable, it is to Pierce's credit that we understand Adam's attraction to her nonetheless, that she remains the central force in the book and that we turn the pages eagerly as their own journey unravels.
The author's dialogue, his ability to evoke the harshness and beauty of the polar landscape, and to keep the story moving briskly forward, are especially noteworthy. I can thoroughly recommend Dead Men as an excellent first novel and look forward to seeing what he produces next.
on 8 May 2012
This book as the Authors debut piece is a truly remarkable work.
I am not a very literary individual and as a rule I am not a great reader, however, this book captured me totally and completely from its very beginning.
The dual story lines and deeply moving account of the harsh and grim condition of the Antarctic 100 years ago was completely captivating.
I was held spellbound by this work from the first word to the last.
I reccomend this exceptional piece of work to you. You will not be disappointed.
I am eagerly awaiting more work from this author.
on 23 March 2012
I pre-ordered Dead Men back in February when Richard Pierce first shared news of the book's imminent release. Richard is a friend of mine since our Authonomy days, and I was thrilled that one of his books was finally going to be released. Needless to say, I looked forward to being able to sit back with my own copy of his Antarctic-set work and read it at my leisure at long last.
The only problem with reading something written by a friend is that it can be hard to separate the friendship from the reading itself. It's only natural - and human, I suspect - to give a bit of leeway to a writer you know personally. As a writer myself, it's a concern I have when my writer friends read and review my work, or when I in turn read and/or review theirs. I do my best to keep my reading objective and unbiased, and sometimes that's quite a struggle to do.
However, with Dead Men, this wasn't a problem at all. From the very first pages I was swept up into the story, and found myself moved to tears before I'd gotten through the first chapter.
The novel alternates between scenes from the past which detail events during Captain Scott's expedition in 1912 and the aftermath of its sobering end, and scenes set in the modern day which tell the story of a pair of seemingly mis-matched lovers who meet by chance on the London Underground.
The surest proof I was involved in the story (aside from my emotional reaction to how Pierce details the passing of the men at various points in the book) was the fact I wasn't sure how to feel about Birdie Bowers, the woman with the dead man's name. Her often careless and contrary - almost spiteful - nature bothered me at first. Perhaps this was because I'd already found myself identifying with Adam Caird and feared that this bothersome woman would hurt him in spite of his consuming devotion to her. His tender, sensitive nature made me afraid that no good end could possibly come from this pairing.
In time, I realized that Birdie - obsessed with understanding the circumstances in which her namesake perished alongside Captain Scott - was merely a reflection of that obsession. In fact, over the course of her life, she has come to resemble the land where he died - unpredictable, harsh and hauntingly beautiful, and utterly compelling for those same reasons.
Watching Adam change and grow through the story was also heartening. It's done subtly, not overtly, and with a natural grace, like all of Pierce's writing. Initially timid and introverted, the challenge of loving tempestuous Birdie - and understanding whether or not the effort is worth anything in the long run - forces him to make decisions which lead him to a greater inner strength. This becomes most clear when the pair make their own journey to Antarctica in search of the truth Birdie believes Scott's tent (now buried beneath 100 years of snow and ice) contains.
Pierce describes Antarctica itself in a beautifully detailed but not overwhelming way. He has travelled there himself and it shows. He is able to paint the landscape so the reader has the feeling of the stark beauty and the deceptive dimensions of the place. In fact, just about every setting is described with a precision and skill which places the reader there, in the moment, so when one closes this book after reading the final pages (and that oh-so-perfect final paragraph), one comes away with a sense of having been there.
There are elements of the story which lean toward the supernatural, but all of them are events which are subtle and believable. It's a fine balance which Pierce handles deftly; he never overdoes these moments, but instead conveys them in a powerfully understated manner which borders on being poetic.
If the reader is like me, they will also come away from this book with a sense of satisfaction and melancholy for a number of reasons. For me, my reasons included: having finished the book too soon; Birdie and Adam's final decisions; the appreciation of what those brave and foolhardy Dead Men did, not so very long ago, and why they did it; and then, finally, a sense of gratitude for Richard Pierce having shared this story with us.
I highly recommend this book.
.... but this book has well and truly sparked my interest in Scott, and Amundsen, too - I will have to go and get books about them, instead of reading all about Shackleton (again).
I loved this book, absolutely loved it, and read it in a couple of days. At first I thought I wouldn't like the fact that much of it is set in the present day, about Birdie and Adam and their quest to find the frozen grave of Scott, Wilson & Bowers, but, though I wasn't that interested in the love stuff, I really understood Birdie's obsession with Scott. One bit I thought extremely amusing and real was the relationship between Adam and his friend John.
I'm going to repeat the word 'loved' over and over again in this review, but never mind - I LOVED the bits about what happened to poor Cherry, the emotions he went through, the guilt. It reiterated something I've often wondered about; how can people who've experienced such as this not be affected by it, deeply, for the rest of their lives? How can they live a 'normal' life again? Of course, many polar explorers couldn't, and found themselves drawn back to the icy wastes, over and over again.
I loved reading about Scott's widow Kathleen, about the dark side of Amundsen, and the ghostly presence felt by everyone in Scott's hut. I wanted to be out there with them all (the modern day ones, not Scott and co!), seeing it all for myself, and experiencing the beautiful emptiness of the Antarctic. I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it; I've just finished it, and I know I will be thinking about it some more.
Anyone who has any interest in polar exploration will enjoy this book as much as I did - and, apart from the fact that it's about a subject by which I am fascinated, Pierce is one hell of a writer, too! I am looking forward to reading more from him, would love to know more about the research that went into this book, and recommend it most highly.
As young children, in a tiny rural primary school, we used to listen rapt to the Master as he told us stories of great adventurers both mythical and real. Forty years on, I still vividly recall the three "heros" who impressed me the most - Abraham Lincoln, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Captain Scott. The story of Scott's ill-fated journey to the South Pole, only to be thwarted by Amundsen, has always fascinated me so I was delighted to get the opportunity to read a new novel about Scott especially in this, the centenary year of his and his colleagues' death.
It's a fairly compact novel, just short of 300 pages but it gives just enough detail to hook the reader from the opening pages where Scott, Wilson and Bowers are discovered in their tent, having starved to death. There is a dual time-frame narrative as past events told in the third person involving Scott, Amundsen, his wife amongst others are balanced with a contemporary storyline in the present tense involving a girl obsessed with finding the current location of the explorers' bodies and some clue as to how they perished only 11 miles away from a base which could have provided them with the food and shelter they needed to survive. The girl is Birdie Bowers, whose parents named her after one of their heros who was Scott's companion in both life and death. She enlists the help of Adam Caird, a would-be suitor, to assist her in her quest to lay some ghosts to rest - her single-mindedness is on a par with that of Scott and his team but there's a recklessness there too which cranks up the tension and drama.
My favourite parts of the novel are those set in the Antarctic, both past and present, as the writer really captures the beautiful desolation of the landscape - an environment which could turn on you and kill you without warning. There's an eerie, haunting atmosphere, the feeling of being watched by the ghosts of the past, be they malevolent or benign but this never spills over into farce or fantasy.
Highly recommended if you are already intrigued by Antarctic adventure and have a respect for nature. Those who enjoyed Dark Matter by Michelle Paver will equally enjoy the polar parts here.
on 25 October 2012
Do not read this book if you are boring, staid and without true human emotion. If you do choose to read it, then ignore the 2-star review. I too am an amateur scholar of all things Scott and whilst it would be easy to criticise aspects of this book, as it would with almost any novel, it is unfair to do so from this stand point. The author has done some excellent research and woven a truly wonderful mix of romance, mystery and ghostliness within a well-founded historical construct.
Allow yourself to be carried away by the ever-changing emotions of Birdie and submerse yourself in the unique love story that slowly develops between her and Adam Caird. Do this and ignore the slightly corny names and you will, I promise, really enjoy this book. It is heart-warming in every sense of the word. It is beautifully written, yet leaves room for your own imagination to fill in the gaps.
This is not a history book, it is a novel about love and passion based around a unique and clever storyline. I didn't necessarily agree with the way it ended, but then i didn't write it. I did,however, truly enjoy reading it.
If you are interested in my thoughts on the same subject then please see:[...]
on 24 July 2012
Dead Men is a most enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. A brilliant mix of fiction, fact and fascination as to why Captain Scott and his team spent their last ten days in a tent when they could have found safety only 11 miles away. The modern day setting mixed with the historical backdrop made for an interesting and thought provoking read. Richard Pierce has an easy style of writing and captures what might have happened in a very plausible and highly descriptive way. Helped by the fact that he has visited the Antartic and has been in Scott's hut makes the story all the more credible. Well done - an author who really knows his stuff! I loved the current day characters of Birdie and Adam especially as Birdie was so quirky - I would like to read more about them. Perhaps a sequel?? If you are looking for a good holiday read or something to capture your imagination then Dead Men is for you.
on 29 March 2012
I picked this book up almost by accident in my local bookshop earlier this week, and found it hard to put down! I ended up racing through the novel in a matter of days. It is very assured for a first novel, in my experience, and has a compelling plot which is cleverly interwoven with deep factual investigations into the life of those who explored the antarctic. I would thoroughly recommend this book.