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3.7 out of 5 stars
3
3.7 out of 5 stars

TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 April 2015
This is the second of Thomas Keneally's two novels with Antarctic backgrounds, following ‘The Survivor’, 1969. Here the narrator is Anthony Piers, an artist on the fictional 1909 New British South Polar Expedition led by Captain Sir Eugene Stewart. Now aged 92, Piers looks back on the expedition from Sageworld, a rest home community south of Los Angeles.

Piers immediately presents the central element, the violent death of the expedition’s only reporter, Victor Henneker, and the uncovering of the circumstances surrounding his murder. At the beginning, Keneally lists 26 members, ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’, of the expedition; this is necessary since the book is less concerned with individual characterisation and rather with the inhospitable environment and the social and psychological interactions of an isolated group struggling at the edge of human endeavor.

Whilst they exemplify the heroic and honourable age, the modern world is evident through the possibility of buying one’s way into the expedition and the inclusion of artists, journalists and photographers to create and sell records of their experiences to settle outstanding debts.

Piers briefly describes the background to the expedition and the journey to the Antarctic. Most of the story is set in the Antarctic winter, where temperatures of -38°F are regarded as warm, and amongst men isolated from the outside world until the following year, if the returning ships can overcome the pack ice.

The Edwardian period is conveyed through reflections on Piers’ life and loves, the attitudes of the officers and men, repression of emotions and prejudices towards adultery, homosexuality, illegitimacy and class.

The novel unfolds with the speed and inevitability of a glacier. Keneally contrasts the hermetic activities of the camp with the possibility of locating a survivor from the ill-fated 1908 Holbrooke Antarctic expedition. Since two members are unaccounted for, the camp gives this ‘person’ the hyphenated name, Forbes-Chalmers, reinforcing its spectral nature.

Following Henneker’s death we learn more about the backgrounds of many of the expedition, all of whom have secrets to hide. Whilst Piers discovers how the journalist met his death, this is not the main focus of the book. However, there are several twists before the outcome, not entirely, unexpected is revealed. Piers’ uncertainty and fear that he may not live up to what is expected of him are honestly presented – rather better than his artistic endeavours.

Keneally creates an authentic picture of men with a range of backgrounds and expertise - scientists, visual artists and handlers of dogs and ponies, and a priest, ski instructor, tractor engineer, and cook, all of whose combined efforts were vital to the overall success of the mission. He also introduces a great deal of information, often through dialogue, describing the nature of contemporary scientific understanding of snow, flora and fauna, geology, embryology and ice- and earth physics.

This is an early novel but one that possesses much evidence of Keneally’s literary excellence.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 September 2003
Written in 1978, this is a murder mystery set near the South Pole in 1909, the same year as Sir Ernest Shackleton's first expedition and five years before the Endurance epic. A similar crew of explorer-scientists and sailors, with the same attitudes and prejudices that one finds in the literary record of the Endurance, perform similar tasks under similar conditions, with one big exception. Captain Eugene Stewart (sharing initials with Ernest Shackleton) must also investigate his own crew as he attempts to unmask the murderer of Victor Henneker, the expedition's representative of the press, who intends to record the voyage for posterity.
With the same care for historic details and period attitudes which one sees in some of Keneally's later, prize-winning books, such as Confederates and Schindler's List, Keneally reveals a blackmailer who holds damaging information about almost everyone in the crew, their reputations vulnerable because they have violated the inflexible moral strictures of Edwardian England. A cuckolded husband, the secret lover of a married aristocrat, a mountain guide who may be responsible for a fatal excursion, a man tried for theft, and others "guilty" of homosexuality, Zionism, illegitimacy, and heresy reflect the pettiness and rigidity of "civilized" life in England and offer motivation both for the murder of Victor and for participating in the expedition. The book's conclusion is also consistent with the mores of the day. While this may not be the greatest mystery of all time, it is certainly one in which the author has done all his homework, well worth reading for the context it provides for other (real) expeditions of the day.
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on 29 December 1998
A claustrophobic novel about a turn of the century Antarctic expedition which turns into a murder investigation when one of it's members is found dead on the ice. The bulk of the novel involves discovering the victim's past and how it interconnected with the lives of the other team members. An interesting, light-weight novel with a twist at the end. Read it on a snowy weekend.
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