The Birthday Boys Paperback – 28 Jan 1993
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Bainbridge's account of the horribly familiar story is both fresh and sure-footed. The power of her imagination, her clarity of expression and mastery of language are more striking than anything else I have read this year (Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph)
A beautiful piece of story-telling. Far more accurately than any biography could do, it catches what must have been Scott's hold on his followers (Andro Linklater, Spectator)
Her darkest work, equally convincing in tis evocations of the icy, unendurable landscape without, and the chilling interior landscapes of damaged souls (Penny Perrick, Sunday Telegraph)
She writes of the hideous deprivations so boldly endured; the astounding beauties of the Antarctic landscapes; the personality clashes; the emotional reticences . . . It seems to me that Beryl Bainbridge has quite surpassed herself in a completely new im (Mary Hope, Financial Times) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
* A Bainbridge classic comes into Abacus paperback for the first time --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.See all Product description
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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!
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.
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.
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