The lure of Antarctica
Posted May 27, 2012on:
It’s frightening being in love. You face a huge, uncertain prospect that ties your stomach in knots and makes you do crazy things. So much lies in wait. Whatever happens, will you be up to it? There’s no-one else you can rely on. It’s just you against an unknown and unknowable otherness.
When Adam falls in love with Birdie Bowers, there can be no compromises. It’s all or nothing. “I knew it would have to be forever, or not at all,” he tells us. Without her he is numb, like a dead man.
So it is when you write a novel – especially your first. It can be so daunting that many of us never get started. We quail before that limitless expanse of white space. We buckle under all that emotion. We wonder if we will ever find our voice. We are fearful that our voice might turn out to be small and insignificant. It is the ultimate test of character. Like going into a vast, white, inhospitable wilderness. “Those of us with no talent,” writes Adam, “will be lost in the drifts of history.”
Dead Men articulates this fear, which is really the fear of being alive, with unostentatious clarity. It’s a very self-aware book. Adam and Birdie are embarking on a journey into the Antarctic to uncover the truth about Scott’s final days. It’s a fascinating journey, eked out with snippets of history drawn from diaries and other accounts of the famous Antarctic explorers – Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and their friends. It’s a well-researched story in which you will learn a lot about what happened on those expeditions.
But it’s more than this. It’s an exploration of being in love, of being a writer and an artist. It’s a love story and it’s a meditation on the fear of failure and the challenge of pursuing your dreams.
The journey into the Antarctic is at once a testament to and a test of Adam’s love for Birdie.
“Everything we’ve talked about that’s happened here in this real world,” Adam muses as they approach that great, white, frozen continent, “has some sort of parallel out there, has somehow been touched by what’s happened out there.”
Scott was beaten to the South Pole. He never made it back. Still, we celebrate Scott’s achievement. Why? It’s largely to do with the beauty of his words and feelings. He articulates the nobility of human endeavour. The diaries he left move us to tears.
Adam’s journey is not quite so heroic. He is an ordinary man. His poetic sensibility is evinced in mundane details – the appreciation of a piece of fabric, his observation of the sugar beet harvest, his sensitivity towards Birdie’s quixotic moods. It is through the accumulation of subtle, everyday details that we come to know and understand Adam as a man. Birdie is more elusive. She is anorexic, idealistic, obsessed. It is her quest that drives them to Antarctica. Adam is a passenger and an observer, totally under her spell.
But they are both under the spell of Scott. The myths and mysteries that surround Scott’s voyage are still, one hundred years after he died, a source of tremendous fascination. Dead Men captures the lure of his otherworldly charm in prose that is elegant and spare. The novel weaves together past and present, fact and fiction, in complex narrative threads that are surprisingly easy to read. It’s an ambitious novel but it wears its ambition lightly. As a first novel, it’s astonishing. For a work that takes failure as one of its themes, it’s a resoundingly triumphant debut.
In fact, I liked this book so much that I nominated it for the Guardian First Book Award. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it.