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.