As a start to my Polar reading theme, I picked up a YA novel that has received much critical acclaim, The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean. I am not surprised that it has won a number of awards; it is a gripping adventure story told exquisitely. The cover is also perfectly evocative of the story, something you don't see every day!
Sym is a shy, partially deaf 14 yr. old, who has a companion she hears in her head. It is Capt. Lawrence "Titus" Oates, who died some 90 years ago as part of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition. In some ways she is a very young fourteen - her schoolmates are interested in boys, kisses, magazines - while she is focused on her interior life and her dreamy Edwardian hero, Capt. Oates, as well as her absorption with "The Ice". She reads extensively about the Antarctic and its explorers, thanks to her "Uncle" Victor who has been training her up in his obsession since childhood. Victor was her father's business partner and has apparently supported Sym and her mother since her father's death. He comes up with the idea of taking them to Paris on a weekend trip, which somehow turns into Sym and Victor going to Antarctica. This trip of a lifetime starts as a dream for Sym, but quickly degenerates as Victor's true agenda is revealed. Outwardly genial, his mad obsession with finding the mythical entrance to the interior of the earth, proposed by discredited scientist John Cleves Symmes, causes him to sabotage the tour they are on, steal an all-terrain vehicle and set out into the centre of Antarctica with Sym and two other men. The situation becomes more and more harrowing, with Sym discovering resources within herself she had not known of. Thanks to the constant presence of Titus Oates, Sym is able to save herself as Victor goes completely mad and is revealed as a remorseless murderer.
The writing in this novel is marvellous. The language and the technique of having Sym living so much in her head allow for the enchanting presence of Titus Oates, a hero of my own who I was happy to see in such a glowing light. Sym and Titus are equally heroic in this story, but I feel that the true star of this novel is the Antarctic itself. McCaughrean's lyrical yet starkly descriptive prose brought to life the inhospitable atmosphere, the danger and the bone-chilling cold. I read it during a few days of extreme winter weather here, so when I looked up and saw snow blowing by horizontally it seemed very atmospheric! There are many elements to appreciate here; Sym's intense coming-of-age, the intricately plotted revelations of Uncle Victor's true perfidy, the extreme adventure of survival, the narrative voice & structure of including Titus' voice as a counterpoint to Sym's own. It all results in a very strong adventure novel, starring a girl, which I would recommend without reservation. What a treat!
A professional review by Adele Geras, which is just what I would have said had I been a more eloquent reviewer, can be found here.