Saturday, February 16, 2008

Northern Solitudes

(read as an ARC)
now available from Bloomsbury

I read this as part of my Polar Reading theme, and it was a great choice. It's quite different from many of the polar books I've read so far, in that it has nothing to do with Edwardian expeditions. It is the story of Thomas Cave, a taciturn sailor on a whaling ship, and is set in the 1600's. In 1616, Cave's ship, the Heartsease, is readying itself to return to England before it gets locked in by ice. An argument begins among the crew, and the result is a wager which leaves Thomas Cave to overwinter alone in the Arctic whaling grounds -- something which has never been done before. In his silent and lonely vigil, there is more than cold, starvation, or hungry polar bears to worry him. He must cope with his own mind, full of grief and shadows, playing tricks on him.

The story is related by Thomas Goodlard, a young shipmate of Cave's at the time of the wager. He tells it as reminiscence, in 1640; the book opens and closes with Goodlard's story. The centre section of the book (which I think is the strongest and most captivating) is "The Experience of Thomas Cave", told in third person and utterly convincing. The most startling thing about this section of the book is its silence. With Thomas Cave holed up in his small cabin, no other human for hundreds of miles, you can almost feel the quality of silence. It's as if the book absorbs all sound as you read. That's why it is so striking when Cave, having his world reduced to one small dark space, and absolute solitude with only memories keeping him company, picks up his violin:

"Yet now for just a moment the silence that has held like a taboo in the room has been broken. He takes the instrument down from its wooden pegs. Not to play it but to handle it only, he tells himself, to run the pads of his fingers down the frets, to pluck a string and see how far its tune has drifted in the cold. Just one distorted note: a flicker of memory, eyes and a swirl of skirts.... So much is contained there within its hollow body: the potential of sound and the memory of sound, and not only music but all the people and evenings past, a thousand people, a hundred different places."

We meet within his memories the woman he had loved, and begin to understand what drove him north. The tone of the writing, slowly revealing Cave's past, here reminds me somehow of the many historical novels about Dutch painters (ie: Girl with a Pearl Earring), as the air of the past and the descriptions are strong and flash almost visually across the page. There is something in this story which enchants, like a fairy tale, an original Grimm's, dark and mysterious, despite its being nominally about survival in a very harsh and real landscape.

The book concludes with Thomas Goodlard's recounting of what became of Cave in later years, after the Heartsease had returned for him and brought him back to England. I wasn't nearly as fascinated with this section. I didn't really see the need for it, and would rather have read a more compelling resolution at the end of Cave's vigil itself. This section is a bit of a tour of the misty fens of England in the 1600's and is quite haunting in itself, but Cave's actual solitude is hard to top. Still, it is a stunning first novel, and has stayed in my thoughts for the last month or so since I finished it. Harding's ability to write of sensation -- the cold, the darkness and returning sun, silence, the sounds of bears snuffling around his 'home', the taste of blood or hot food, teeth loose and sore from malnutrition, all the many tactile impressions -- is superb. I'm very glad I read this unique novel of polar experience.

**You can read the first chapter of this book, and an interesting review by Steven Heighton, author of another "Polar castaway" story, Afterlands (which I reviewed a while ago now), at the NY Times online.


  1. This sounds like a great book.

  2. I will make a point of seeking this one out!

  3. I like reading historical novels and should read more -- this one sounds like fun.


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