Wednesday 23 May 2018

Out in the cold with worthy Arctic drama

Fiction: Minds of Winter, Ed O'Loughlin, Riverrun, hdbk, 496 pages, €19.76

History lesson: Ed O'Loughlin's new novel provides a well-researched dramatised account of the polar adventurers of the past
History lesson: Ed O'Loughlin's new novel provides a well-researched dramatised account of the polar adventurers of the past
Minds of Winter by Ed O'Loughlin

John Boland

Canadian-born but raised in Ireland, Ed O'Loughlin worked as a foreign correspondent for the Irish Times and other outlets before coming to literary notice with his 2009 first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

It was certainly a distinctive debut, even if more persuasive in its vivid portrayal of headline-seeking hacks in war-torn Africa than in its less convincing other strand about newsroom characters back home, which seemed extraneous to the riveting main storyline.

Two years later came the very different Toploader, a blackly comic, indeed surreal take on war, this time set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and featuring not only corrupt military officials and fame-seeking journalists, but also an exploding donkey and the mysterious fridge of its title. Within its own nightmarish parameters, it worked very well and deserved more attention than it got.

And now, five years later, comes a very different book again, as if the author remains restlessly in search both of a subject and of a tone, which this time around allows for no laughs in its 500-page saga about polar exploration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The chief protagonists here are Englishwoman Fay and Canadian Nelson, who make for an odd couple as they meet up accidentally in Canada's Northwest Territories - the former in search of information about her disappeared explorer grandfather, the latter trying to find his vanished older brother.

That's the framework on which the story is built, though both of these characters only feature intermittently, as the narrative's main thrust concerns polar adventurers from the past, including Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the 1840s; Scott and Oates and their doomed Antarctic expedition almost 70 years later; and Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who conquered the same region a year earlier and later repeated his triumph at the North Pole.

The author has done his research and he lets you know it, not just in the detailed five pages of acknowledgements at the book's end but also throughout the narrative. Indeed, readers who aren't familiar with the subject may well feel that they're being given a dramatised history lesson on matters that don't really concern them all that much.

It doesn't help that Fay and Nelson, who function as our contemporary investigatory touchstones, are somewhat dreary characters and so thinly characterised that it's even hard to put an age on them. And while Nelson's concern for his missing brother is understandable, it's hard to comprehend Fay's obsession with her long-lost grandfather or why it should lead her to such furtive and hostile behaviour towards Nelson, who's more accommodating to her than he's given reason to be.

There's also much made of a 19th-century chronometer and its whereabouts, though the reader may well be less fascinated by its significance than either the characters or the author.

Towards the end of the acknowledgements, O'Loughlin gives thanks to his editors for working "long and hard to turn a self-indulgent mess of cobbled-together myth and mystery into something like a novel". That's disarming, but it undersells his own achievement - he's a very good writer and has both a fluency and sense of narrative thrust that seem all his own.

A pity, then, that the mystery he mentions doesn't register as being all that mysterious, or even that engrossing. Indeed, in a book that's crammed with dramatic historical events, there's not an awful lot of real drama.

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