2017 Giller Prize, Antarctica, Australia, Author, Book review, Canada, Ed O'Loughlin, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, riverrun, Setting, UK

‘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.

Antarctica, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Favel Parrett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett

When the night comes

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2014.

Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes is one of those lovely, gentle stories that demands nothing of the reader — except to let the quiet, bare-boned prose wash over you.

Set in 1986, largely in Hobart, Tasmania and on the Antarctic ice-breaker Nella Dan, the story charts the friendship between two unlikely people: Isla, a young teenage girl, and Bo, the Danish crewman who boards with her family when he’s not at sea.

Told in short impressionistic chapters — sometimes from Isla’s point of view, sometimes from Bo’s — their intertwined stories slowly unfold. What emerges is an in-depth character study of two people trying to find their rightful places in the world after loss  — in Isla’s case, the loss of her father through divorce; in Bo’s case, through the death of his father and, later, a colleague.

Emotional truths

While I would hesitate to describe When the Night Comes as a portrait of grief, it is very much a story about emotional truths. For Isla it’s all about working out whom she can trust and discovering that not all grown men are violent or unpredictable as per her estranged father; for Bo it’s about reconnecting with the things that his papa loved so much — nature, the sea and the camaraderie to be found onboard ship.

My father turned to me and said, “The sea is alive and there is no beginning and there is no end. It moves with the moon and the spinning of this earth and it calls us when it wants us to come.”

Indeed, the book offers some beautiful descriptions of the Antarctic wilderness, of the endless ice and snow, and the birds that fly overhead, and it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the frozen emotional states of both characters, whose gentle friendship over the course of “two long summers” helps them readjust to new circumstances.

The Nella Dan
The Nella Dan, by Dr. Robert Ricker, via NOAA Photo Library and Wikipedia Commons

Central to the storyline is the role of food and the exquisite comfort it can bring at times of turmoil. Bo, a chef on the Nella Dan, tells Isla and her younger brother of the simple joy that an orange can bring when you are far out at sea — or trapped in ice, as the Nella Dan was for seven long weeks en route to Antarctica’s Casey research station. And when he’s at home preparing food he is at his most honest and forthright with Isla, sharing stories of the sea and infecting her with a lifelong interest in science and the natural world.

(The descriptions of food, by the way, are mouthwatering… and it pays not to read this book on an empty stomach. You have been warned.)

While there’s a melancholia at the heart of this novel, helped in part by a series of tragic events, it never feels claustrophobic or depressing. It deals with big issues — death, grief, divorce, among others —  so you might expect the narrative to feel weighted down, but it’s almost the opposite: the prose practically floats off the page it feels so light. Coupled with moments of quiet, unbridled joy, When the Night Comes is a truly captivating and unexpectedly moving story.

Last year it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, The Indie Books Awards, the ALS Gold Medal and the ABA’s Booksellers Choice Award.

It has been published in the UK and North America.

For another take on this novel, please read Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 42nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 28th for #AWW2016.