A novel wondrous in tone and reach

The Irish Times By Eoin McNamee

Ed O’Loughlin crafts a big, time-shifting tale around a perilous polar expedition

It is Van Diemen’s Land in 1841, in the years leading up to Sir John Franklin’s darkling sortie into the Arctic in search of the North-West Passage, from which none would return. The decks of his ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are conjoined, a dance floor made between the two. A thousand mirrors are set to glitter in the rigging and to reflect the dancers on deck, their complex quadrilles setting the tone for Minds of Winter, Ed O’Loughlin’s gripping new work.

The disappearance of the Erebus and the Terror is the starting point of a series of interlocking journeys northward, each journey revisited in turn, the momentum of the years given shape by the Arnold 294 chronometer thought lost with Franklin but surfacing in a London auction room in 2009. Everything is coded and allusive. O’Loughlin is operating at the interstices of truth and history, of that which can be known and that which cannot.

In the present day Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan, strangers to each other, come to the Northwest Territories to unravel family enigmas. They are as much at sea as the vanished family members they are seeking. Fay’s grandfather Hugh Morgan – a career spook, a name not included on passenger manifests, a man whose job it is to set himself among the lost – is not to be easily tracked. Nilsson’s brother Bert has come unstuck in the wraith mists of the far north and threatens to take Nilsson with him.

Bert is not the only one to be led astray by ghosts. The Prince Albert expedition of 1851 to rescue Franklin is guided by a map dictated from the spirit world by the dead four-year-old Louise Coppin, or Little Weasy. At the end of that voyage the French Lieut Mellot is thrown into despair when he finds that he has been honoured by having a nonexistent strait named after him. The ghost maps of Derry’s death-haunted Victorian parlours set beside the shifting cartographies of men’s search for the sublime.

People get lost in the snow, marooned in pack ice; they are lost in the whiteout of their own desires. Mellot disappears into a crack in the ice. Capt Oates walks into the darkness from his tent never to be seen again. The plane of Roald Amundsen – the first to navigate the North-West Passage – ditches in the Barents Sea, his body never found. Historic figures drift in and out of the text: Scott, Amundsen, Jack London, Capt Leopold McClintock, Ipiirviq, known as Eskimo Joe. Their lives taken elsewhere and returned to them, amplified in mystery.

There’s enough workaday suspense in the pages to keep the eye in, but O’Loughlin has the ability to conduct the reader to the portals of the strange without resorting to the off-the-shelf mechanics of genre. There are shifts in perception, subtle underminings. Chauncy Loomis is quoted: “One cannot map the sublime, or give it place names.” The arts of mapping, the acts of naming must take on a shamanic reach.
The esoterica of European history finds echoes in the northlands.

Little Weasy’s chill voice comes back to us in the Inuit belief that the Northern Lights are dead children at play. The legend of Nazi meteorologists left behind in the frozen interior fuses with the ghoulish mythology of the Tunit, the bone tribe whom the Inuit dare not encounter. Our hauntings are their hauntings.

Hugh Morgan eludes us. It is his life’s study to do so. He meets his wife – Fay’s grandmother – when his flying boat drifts past her on the shore as he tests submarine-detecting equipment on Lough Neagh. He works on the early-warning line in the far north, cold-war installations. The Doppler masts. The White Alice antennae. There is a low hum of covert activity through the book. Don DeLillo’s sinister buzz of implication; Capt Oates’s friend William Meares coaches Morgan in covert arts; Room 38 is the Roswell of its time.

The point, though, is not conspiracy but the unseen. When he puts his ear to the great dishes of the early-warning system Morgan is listening not for Russian radio chatter but for the voices of the dead carried to him on eerie polar winds.

The men pitch themselves against the sublime. The women wait. The men seek out loneliness; the women have pickets of solitude set about them. Sophia, niece of John Franklin, will watch John Ross and Francis Crozier sail to their deaths as the expedition captains, one an object of desire, the other an unrequited suitor. Amundsen’s mistress Bess Magids will wait alone in the hotels of Europe for news that will never come. Ipiirviq’s wife, Taqulittuq, carries the Arnold chronometer with her as she once carried the body of a dead infant from which she would not be parted.

And in the present Fay has plenty to be going on with. Booze and desultory sex in functional spaces weren’t what she had in mind coming north. Nilsson can barely seem to prove his existence to himself, never mind to anyone else. The local cop has them down as the kind of people who wash up in end-of-the-earth places, spiritual flotsam with a deadend life ready and waiting. But in the end transcendence awaits them, whether they want it or not.

Minds of Winter is a big, complex book. Multiple stories are told in different voices and in different eras. Research is gathered and sifted. The voyages of the lost are without end and do not lend themselves to straightforward narrative. The pack-ice shifts above unknowable depths.

O’Loughlin has worked the essential harmonics and set the whole structure echoing. The final pages seem inevitable, as great endings must; the whole novel wondrous in its tone and reach. The title is from Wallace Stevens’s poem The Snow Man, where we’re asked to behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”. It takes a good writer to take that on. It takes a great one to succeed.

Eoin McNamee is the author of the Blue trilogy
The Irish Times, 27th August 2016

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist