The Sunday Times Culture Magazine, 14 August 2016
By Bert Wright
The explorer Raymond Priestley located the fascination with polar exploration in “the sharpness of the contrasts experienced . . . a hell one day liable to make a heaven the next”.Swinburne, in his poem on the Franklin Expedition, emphasised “the high scorn of ease” that drove on the Victorian explorers. Jack London captured the call of the wild declaring that “the proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.”
Many writers, from Charles Dickens and Jules Verne in the 19th century to Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood in the 20th, have weighed in on the subject and now undaunted by the stiff competition, Irish-Canadian author Ed O’Loughlin has written an impressive exploration novel.
Minds of Winter connects multiple historical expeditions to a contemporary thread involving Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson, two obsessive loners thrown together by happenstance in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Both, it turns out, are on a mission to discover the truth about family members connected in different ways to the folklore of Arctic exploration. In the acknowledgements, O’Loughlin disingenuously downplays his novel as “a self-indulgent mess of cobbled-together myth and mystery” saved by skilful editing.
Yet in both concept and execution the novel is a serious piece of work at once vastly entertaining and ambitious on a scale that leaves much of contemporary Irish fiction looking woefully insubstantial.
The novel begins with Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage and goes on to describe, in separate sections, most of the major polar expeditions from Scott to Shackleton and Amundsen.
En route we encounter vignettes of less well-known explorers such as Kennedy, Crozier, Bellot, Oates, and Irishmen such as the unsung Cecil Meares, and Tom Crean, now a posthumous hero of iconic status. These sections would make fine stand-alone short stories but O’Loughlin deftly spins the ripping yarns without threat to the overall fabric of the novel. As Morgan remarks, all of these stories “converge at the poles like meridians”.
The principle point of convergence is Franklin’s marine chronometer which was believed lost along with the 1845 expedition only to turn up, 150 years later, in a London antique auction — a development characterised in a Guardian report as “a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie”. The modified clock, we discover, has adorned Morgan’s grandfather’s Ulster mantelpiece for decades and its remarkable journey invests the novel with a powerful narrative tension. Morgan’s meeting with Nilsson at Inuvik airport is strangely serendipitous. Had she been “waiting for someone to share in her madness” asks Nilsson, who is pursuing his own quest concerning his missing brother Bert, a shadowy scientist hell-bent on solving some of the great Arctic mysteries including whether Albert Johnson, the so-called Mad Trapper of Rat River, was in fact a great-uncle.
While central to the action, Morgan and Nilsson’s stories occasionally pale in comparison to the exploits of the explorers themselves. O’Loughlin has done his research meticulously and introduces compelling historical detail that leaps effortlessly from Franklin’s tenure as governor-general of Tasmania to the fate of Anastasia the missing Romanov; from the Yukon gold rush to the two world wars; from the Arctic DEW stations capturing the strange beep of the first Soviet Sputnik to the 1981 discovery of Franklin’s missing ship, Erebus, on the ocean bed. This panoramic approach calls to mind Colum McCann’s historical novels and is deployed no less effectively.
Readers may be daunted by the sheer weight of detail, the sprawling cast of characters and the fractured chronology all of which require close attention, but the big effects achieved repay the patience many times over.
Perhaps the biggest effect in this novel is the metaphysical dimension which calls to mind the expansiveness of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. O’Loughlin is at pains to show how the sublime immensity of the polar landscape renders the spidery scuttlings of mere humans, however heroic, strangely futile. Each laboured to solve the eternal mysteries of the Arctic and failed.
“All of them were lost. They disappeared in the ice. No one saw what became of them”, the narrator reflects. Despite these gloomy ruminations, O’Loughlin’s novel is a hymn to human endurance. There will be few better historical novels published this year.