1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Not the most inviting of titles
, 3 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Dead Men (Paperback)
First - the non-fictional context of the book, for those unfamiliar with it. 2014 has witnessed a first in Antarctica. Ben Saunders and his colleague Tarka L'Herpiniere have completed an 1800 mile walk from Ross Island in Antarctica to the South Pole and back - the very same route which Scott just failed to complete a century ago. And because of modern technology many of us were privileged to be able to follow their daily blogs. I was one, as was Richard Pierce, the author of 'Dead Men'. And that is how I became aware of him - since he took every opportunity via his blog responses, to invite us to download the Kindle version of this his first novel!
'Dead Men' is the story of Adam who by chance meets a wacky young woman called Henrietta 'Birdie' Bowers who has inherited her passion for all things Scott and the Antarctic from her father (hence the soubriquet 'Birdie' - Henry 'Birdie' Bowers was a companion of Scott). Her obsession is to one day find the preserved bodies of Scott and his four companions - a mission one might regard as a pipe dream, (since they died a hundred years ago on a sea borne ice sheet which is slowly moving northwards to progressively calve into the open sea). But Adam falls in love with Birdie, and hence decides to throw in his lot with her, hook line and sinker. And so the story procedes.
The format of the novel is quite clever. It is written in the first person - by Adam. I don't know Richard Pierce but I suspect there is very much of him in Adam. Interspersed with Adam's narrative, are vignettes of the Scott story, from a number of perspectives - Scott himself - his wife Kathleen - and Apsley Cherry-Garrard (who was in Scott's support party and wrote the wonderful book 'The Worst Journey in the World'). These interspersions give Pierce the opportunity to show how much he knows of the Scott story - and, to give him due credit, it is clear he has thoroughly researched and immersed himself in the primary material. But he is not the first to play with these characters. ( You may wish to compare his efforts with Beryl Bainbridge's 'The Birthday Boys').
So why do I only award the novel 'two stars'? I am clearly in a minority, since I note that other Amazon reviewers shower the book with what sometimes seem to approach orchestrated plaudits.
Firstly, I was totally unconvinced by the emerging relationship between Adam and Birdie. For me, both characters were poorly drawn, and though I know that love can be blind, their reactions to one another were often incredible.
Secondly, I thought the language of the novel was lacking. It was at its best when describing the aura of Antarctica - an aura which Pierce has direct experience of. It was least successful when conveying the emotions of the two principal characters, lacking subtlety.
My next problem was with the plot which I felt was totally preposterous and unconvincing. Even if it were technically possible, why would anyone want to search for the polar party's bodies ? Morbid curiosity? Birdie's reasons smacked more of madness than anything else. And though I am aware of other successful bids to uncover bodies preserved in the Arctic, I found this aspect of the novel's plot somewhat distasteful, especially as it is known that surviving members of the expedition (including Cherry-Garrard) who discovered those bodies in late 1912, took measures to ensure they were not disturbed again. Without wishing to reveal a spoiler, I should also add that the end of the novel was ... perhaps 'ludicrous' is too strong a word ... certainly unedifying.
Other aspects of the novel's plot also jarred. When Adam and Birdie finally get to New Zealand and the Antarctic they are given virtually unfettered access to artefacts in the museum and again to Scott's hut. I have not been to the Antarctic. I know Richard Pierce has. Is he suggesting that the New Zealand authorities allow such behaviour? Not from what I know of their herculean efforts to preserve the heritage which remains.
A further problem for me was the nature of the episodic interspersions of the original Scott story. I confess that these may well have been enlightening for readers who know little of that saga. And it is hoped they may provide a source of encouragement for some to read the superb original writings of Scott, Cherry-Garrard. Kathleen Scott etc. But for me, they added nothing to the plot. And though based on accurate observations, I was somewhat unhappy with Pierce's speculative embroidery of their thoughts, motives and emotions.
I also got a little annoyed with some of the author's apparently throwaway 'prejudices'. I give two examples. Speaking of Cherry-Garrard - "Then came the first of two world wars, a needless war. He served in ...." Why include this contentious assertion? Many may think the 1WW was 'needless'. Others would totally disagree. Then again - Adam speaking - "I like this place.... not Spartan and puritan like our cold English churches where we go to be punished rather than forgiven." Why such a monstrous generalisation?
I hope I have not been too negative about this debut novel. I admire Richard Pierce for his passion for Antarctica. I applaud his attempt to create a novel based on his undoubted knowledge and interest. But for me (though I admit not for others), the novel did not come off. And that was a great pity, because I have to admit, despite everything, I enjoyed reading it!
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