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Tries too hard to cover all the bases
on 23 December 2015
Richard Pierce clearly knows a lot about the race to the Antarctic early in the twentieth century, not only the practicalities of it, but also how mythic it became in the collective imagination, particularly in the UK.
In this novel, (which is of course also largely a factual account, using information available at the time and later) he charts that fatal journey undertaken by Scott, Wilson, Oates ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Evans, not to mention what was a devastating discovery by the British team, when they reached the Pole, to discover the Norwegian, Amundsen, had got there first. Scott’s party all died on the journey back.
The explorers, over the century , have achieved iconic status; they failed (in being the first to reach the Pole) and the mystery of their deaths (understandable, given the harshness and danger of the venture) has come to stand for a certain kind of brave, against the odds, heroism in pursuit of an ideal not always understandable to others.
Pierce’s book worked well with these aspects
What did not work for me was the modern, fictional story. ‘Birdie’ Bowers is a young artist, quite tortured, quite flaky and terrifyingly vulnerable. She is obsessed by the original Birdie Bowers, whom she was named for, as her dead father was obsessed by him. By chance she meets an older man, Adam, someone with some demons of his own – a history of failed love affairs, some challenges with social communication, who works in some kind of rather nebulous freelance IT field. Adam falls immediately for the flaky Birdie and comes to share her interest and obsession (as part of that falling in love) He is cast, within the book as an impossibly high minded knight in shining armour. I did wonder, perhaps unkindly, whether Adam was a kind of wish-fulfillment projection for the author himself.
So what is also going on is a high, Romantic story which could have stepped straight out of Medieval Romance, where physical consummation is sublimated to pure and heroic deeds. I couldn’t believe in either character, frankly, and Birdie particularly felt far too obviously unstable to persuade authorities connected with the modern quest to unearth the ‘mystery’ , to let her within spitting distance of the project
Pierce also has a go at injecting ghostly, mysterious, high transcendental spiritual aspects into the story. I’m afraid these did not work for me either. I was neither spooked, moved, nor uplifted. The problem for me really was the fact I couldn’t believe in Birdie, in Adam, or in their relationship, which meant, really, that everything ‘in modern’ failed to engage me.
But, as one of those readers who has a curious fascination with the Poles, I did enjoy reading of that high Polar adventure which captured a nation’s imagination