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Polar epic sings with intrigue and beauty


Winter's tale: Ed O'Loughlin's new novel whisks the reader around the world and through a few centuries

Winter's tale: Ed O'Loughlin's new novel whisks the reader around the world and through a few centuries

Winter's tale: Ed O'Loughlin's new novel whisks the reader around the world and through a few centuries

From Toronto to Dublin, by way of Kildare, Africa and the Middle East, Ed O'Loughlin is part of that great migrant-writer tradition that is able to make the entire world its stage. As a foreign correspondent in those latter two regions, he would have to have been resourceful in order to successfully deliver a story to his readers. Time, geography, motivations and truths - this is the basic periodic table of elements to those reporting from overseas.

Should it be any surprise then that Minds of Winter (his third novel proper after the Booker-longlisted Not Untrue & Not Unkind, and Toploader), should soar so confidently, whisking the reader as it does around the world and through a few centuries in pursuit of an echoing tale of the ages?

The magnetism of the poles, of a frozen emptiness uncluttered by the whims and demands of human civilisation, has drawn us towards them, often tragically, for centuries. O'Loughlin directs his gaze northwards as well as south, from Hobart to Alaska and the latitudes at each end of the globe. For the same reason that men have risked their lives to summit peaks, Earth's extremities have a certain pull and this is at the essence of this sprawling mystery.

In the far Northwest Territories of Canada shivers the town of Inuvik. Two strangers cross paths here one snowbound evening and eventually form an uneasy alliance when they discover some freakish similarities. Fay has come to search for her grandfather, Hugh Morgan. Nelson is trying to find some answers about brother Bert's disappearance. Sheepishly, the pair come to believe that the two cases could be linked.

O'Loughlin doesn't so much pan back as leap about, threading together an extraordinary tale that warps actual history into something conjoined, poetic and thrilling. At the epicentre of these interlocking narratives, these living and breathing jigsaw parts, is a McGuffin that sings with intrigue and a historical riddle that has never been solved.

The saga opens with a reprint of an actual Guardian article from 2009 detailing the extraordinary case ("worthy of Agatha Christie") of a marine chronometer disguised as a carriage clock that turned up in England a few years ago. What is incredible about it is that the instrument vanished along with the two ships and 129 men of Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage.

O'Loughlin has grand ambitions for this chronometer but they will come at a cost. It might be the dashed dreams of a society heiress. It could be the luckless rescue attempts made by Franklin's wife and the role of "phantom straits" and "spirit maps". There are the ghosts of dead children and Inuit superstitions. Victorian Polar exploration also came ready packaged with "the agony of snowblindness. The screaming haze of exhaustion and scurvy", and men walking off into the endless ice and never being seen or heard of again.

While the chill is slowly thawing between Nelson and Fay, the map unfurls and an oblique travel log of the chronometer's course is plotted with both beauty and brawn, a modern myth flowing richly through real and imaginary lives by O'Loughlin because no sufficient truth yet exists. This marvel of a novel is a worthy home for the timepiece.

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