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Plus ca change....
on 16 August 2014
Everland is a book about Antarctic exploration. It takes the story of two expeditions to the fictional titular island, each comprising three people. The first expedition takes place in 1913, the second is set in 2012, to celebrate the centenary of the first disastrous landing. Author Rebecca Hunt appears to draw on her experiences with the Arctic Circle residency to present a highly convincing picture of both a frozen landscape and of its effect on the vulnerable human body. This makes Everland a somewhat pungent book. I had recently read Hannah Kent's Burial Rites which, with an Icelandic setting, gives a similar feel of the odour generated by people huddled together in a freezing environment.
Secondly it is a book about the passage of time. There are frequent references to the lichen on the island, which lives for thousands of years, barely changing over the 100 year timescale of the book. At the other end of the spectrum is technology. The 20th century explorers are isolated for months at a time with rudimentary, barely adequate equipment. Their 21st century successors on the other hand have constant contact via radio, and the extent of their isolation is limited to being two hours away by sea plane. What doesn't change is their vulnerability in the face of the sheer unforgiving hostility of the environment. Hunt's main theme, however, is the constancy of human nature. She seemingly creates a basket of character traits which she shares between the earlier Dinners, Millet-Bass and Napps, and then redistributes them between the later Blix, Jess and Decker. Each party has a weak link who joined the party as a result of outside influence. Each has a no-nonense expert. Each has a leader struggling with the responsibility. Everland thus becomes a sort of dark and twisted Never-neverland in which human nature never grows up.
Thirdly it is a book about relationships under pressure. As the story of the two expeditions move along similar arcs, with clear parallels between the difficulties each faces, so the development of the relationships between the three main characters follow corresponding paths at either end of the century. In both there is an initial hostile divide between naivety and competence, with a seemingly more mature character keeping the peace. As time passes hostility turns to acceptance and diplomacy deteriorates into vindictiveness. A critical exploration of the effects of stress comes near the end of the 21st century thread when one of the characters takes an uncharacteristically selfish decision. Is this a piece of poor, unrealistic writing or is it a totally credible account of something having to give in a man squeezed by competing demands in an unbearably stressful situation?
Fourthly it is a book about how history is written by the victors. Early on the 2012 expedition watch a film based on the story of their predecessors, during which the supposed villain of the piece is roundly booed. Through the book we learn of the very different reality of the situation, and of why, to protect vested interests, the name of a noble if uncompromising man was blackened. This is repeated in both eras as characters reach sordid little compromises to obscure the truth of their own misdeeds.
The strengths of Everland are the apparent authenticity of the environment (I don't have the personal experience to judge this definitively) and in the complex characterisations of and relationships between the historical protagonists. The more modern characters are less successful. While they show some development, they start off as very crudely drawn stereotypes. I wasn't always convinced by the number of parallels between the two stories. The author at times seemed to be trying too hard, for example there is an incident involving the burying of meat in both timelines which seems almost peripheral to the plot, and only in there to create a temporal echo. It is also only vaguely explained (although one can guess at what happened).
Overall, Everland is a well researched, engrossing book with a narrative which both moves at a reasonable pace and keeps some of its secrets right up to the final denouement.