Polar exploration’s allure examined

The Australian
Ed Wright
What kind of person becomes a polar explorer? Who chooses the cold, the emptiness, the sheer risk just to chart a bit of a coastline few will ever want to visit? Why give your only life to the long odds of finding an abstract spot in a barely differentiated landscape composed of ice and snow? Yet these extreme climes have attracted people across the centuries, many of them fatally. And the mystery of how these fatalities have occurred, rather than a deterrence, has functioned as an incentive for others to follow in their footsteps.

Minds of Winter is a novelistic investigation of the lure of the ice and snow. It’s the third novel for Canada-born, Ireland-raised Ed O’Loughlin, whose interest in risky business includes being a foreign correspondent reporting from Africa and the Middle East.

It’s a shaggy but brilliant paean to the obsessions of the polar explorers.

The novel works in fragments that blur an entirely fictional present with historical fictions featuring frontiersmen and polar explorers including John Franklin (also a former lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land), Charles Hall, Roald Amundsen and the enigmatic Cecil Meares, who was responsible for the dogs on Scott’s ill-fated mission to the South Pole.

The parts of the story are organised around the true enigma of a single object, a chronometer that sailed with Franklin on his disastrous final 1845 attempt to discover the fabled northwest passage, which was rediscovered disguised as a carriage clock some 150 years later. Although Franklin and his entire complement of 129 men perished, some of the 32 subsequent rescue missions discovered relics of the expedition but the chronometer wasn’t one of them.

O’Loughlin takes this mystery and sets his reader off on a mad ice chase in Canada’s sparse Arctic settlements. Nelson Nilson is looking for his missing brother Bert, a geographer. Down on his on luck himself, he inhabits his brother’s apartment, drives his car and spends his money, delaying the necessity of reporting Bert’s disappearance to the police.

While procrastinating in this fashion he meets Faye, who is deceptively (though we are never sure why) engaged in a search for her grandfather Hugh Morgan, an apprentice of Meares who leaves his home in Canada for a murky career in the military, and who seems to have owned the chronometer at some point.

As the settlement of Inuvik is closed in by snow, Nelson and Fay are drawn by convenience to each other, a bond that is strengthened when she discovers that Bert was working on similar lines of inquiry when he vanished without a trace.

Minds of Winter actively resists the explanations of its mysteries. Just as the precise fates of many explorers remain unclear, O’Loughlin refuses to use his fictional licence in the service of resolution.

No less than three of the key characters in the book follow the example of Captain Lawrence Oates, who on Scott’s disastrous mission to the South Pole famously remarked to his fellow travellers as they huddled from the cold in a tent: “I am just going outside and I might be some time.”

Perhaps the ordeals of travel in the polar regions reduce the fear of death. And of course in the vast unpeopled tundra it’s easy to disappear, to succumb to the inhospitable environment and fall asleep in the snow and so disappear without a trace.

O’Loughlin actively fosters the generation of mystery, too, such as the identity of or reason for Room 38, a shadowy collective that traverses both generations and military affiliation, seemingly bound only by its members’ fraternity in matters of the poles. Its existence without explanation feeds the reader’s urge for conspiracy and the story is inflected with the temptations of paranoid thought.

It’s difficult to think of novels where the characters, though portrayed realistically, are more unknowable.

At times, this puts the reader at something of a disadvantage; there’s a sense that we are observing the action from far away. Yet this sense of remoteness, of men and women holding on to their thoughts as they are pummelled by the inhospitable vastness, is appropriate. And perhaps the strange detachment of many of the characters is also a consequence of their common experience, which includes months of collective cabin fever while stuck in blizzards, starvation, polar bear attacks, lead poisoning and even cannibalism.

The writing is stupendously good, crisply lyrical without ever becoming absorbed by its own density. In his description, O’Loughlin stretches the imagination in terms of both the scenery and the words that describe it. While the Inuit dialect in the region of Nunavik, where much of the book’s action takes place, might have 53 words for snow, O’Loughlin manages beautifully with the impoverished resources of English:

The weather was overcast, not as cold as it had been. His headlights revealed a rain of fine crystals, too small to call flakes or see in the dark. They fell slant in breeze that came off the mountains, sticking to the windscreen where the wipers did not reach. The crystals grew larger. As he drove through the last pool of streetlight they were falling more slowly; by the time he reached Fay’s lodgings it was snowing as it should. The flakes whirled in the breeze like a murmuration of starlings, billions of fleeting pixels which formed then dissolved dark trees by the road. Opening the car door, he heard the hiss of new snow brushing over old crust.

Those who enter a novel in the expectation that ends will be neatly tied together might be disappointed by the disciplined irresolution of Minds of Winter. But for those interested in the obsessions of polar exploration, this is a compelling and suitably idiosyncratic voyage into its strange motivations.

Ed Wright is a writer and critic.

Read the original review in The Australian

August 27th, 2016

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist