‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of Winter

Fiction – hardcover; riverrun; 446 pages; 2016.

There’s no doubting the ambition of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter. This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps and it also throws in a modern-day storyline for good measure.

The amount of research within its 446 pages is mind-boggling, to say the least. O’Loughlin has crammed in every conceivable fact about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica over more than two centuries of exploration, and he has melded together both real and fictional accounts to create a brilliantly imagined novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize.

The book is peopled with non-fictional characters, including Captain Sir John and Lady Franklin (of the famed “lost” expedition to chart the North-West Passage in 1845), the 19th century Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and “Scott of the Antarctic” Robert Scott, amongst others. Some of the chapters are also narrated by “Eskimo Joe”, an Inuit guide and explorer who assisted many American Arctic explorers in the 1860s and 70s.

A multi-layered story spanning continents and time periods

O’Loughlin interleaves these various historical accounts, which switch between eras and hemispheres, to build up a multi-layered story showcasing the obsession of these explorers at a time when life and death often hinged upon navigation by the stars or through the use of new-fangled inventions such as the chronometer. He shows their desire for fame (or notoriety), their little madnesses, the rivalry, and the underhand tactics they sometimes employed — all in a bid to do something no-one else had ever done before.

Holding all these often disparate narrative threads together is a modern-day storyline focussed on the true mystery of the “Arnold 294” chronometer. This marine timepiece designed for celestial navigation and the measurement of longitude was thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic, but it reappeared 150 years later in Britain disguised as a Victorian carriage clock. (You can read about that in this article published in The Guardian in 2009.)

And then there is Nelson and Fay, who accidentally meet at the airport in Inuvik, a remote town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and discover that there is a long-lost connection between them.

A great idea, but poorly executed

I had a couple of problems with this novel. I think the parts are better than the whole. The narrative jumps around a lot, there’s lots of (impenetrable) information and it’s hard to keep track of the characters (a dramatic personae might have helped). It’s not a book to read in fits and starts; you really need to devote large chunks of time to it otherwise it’s almost impossible to follow what’s going on.

It’s ambition is much to be admired, but when such a massive doorstep of a novel lacks a cohesive narrative thread it can be hard to generate momentum. I kept expecting all the threads to be neatly drawn together at the end, to deliver some kind of powerful shock, but I was disappointed. There will be some readers who love the challenge of the story, but for me, it felt too much like hard work.

My fellow Shadow Giller judge Naomi, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, thought more highly of it, describing it as “a marvellous journey” that “takes us to many out-of-the-way places on this earth”. You can read her review here.

This is my 5th and final book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. We will announce our winner on KevinfromcCanada’s blog later today.

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12 thoughts on “‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin

  1. Pingback: The 2017 Giller Prize shortlist — and return of the Shadow Giller – Reading Matters

    • It definitely needed someone to say, “what is the point of all this research if the narrative plods along and nothing, apart from the icy settings, connects the different parts together”! 🙂

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    • Hmm… it would probably make a good holiday read, because you need acres and acres of time to read it in big chunks. My working life is bonkers at the moment so I could only manage the odd 20 minutes here or there and it really suffered from my lack of commitment. I found when I read it on the weekend in sittings of two hours or more it worked much better for me.

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  2. I really wish this was either a proper novel or a proper work of non-fiction, so I don’t think I’ll be picking it up. But I’ve appreciated the reviews I’ve read as it’s very much something I would be interested in.

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  3. Pingback: Links to all the 2017 Shadow Giller reviews | KevinfromCanada

  4. I’ve read Naomi’s review as well – the Fay, Nelson thing just sounds like a hook on which to hang the author’s impressive research, which is getting to be my least favourite form of fiction.

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    • Yes, I think the Fay/Nelson thing was a way for the author to hang his research together … it’s a shame because there’s a bloody good story here dying to get out. Maybe if he just focussed on one storyline instead of multiple divergent and seemingly unrelated ones he might have created a more readable book. Mind you, I read his one about foreign journalists which was shortlisted for a previous Giller Prize (and Booker, too) and I didn’t really get on with that one either.

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