Monday 18 December 2017

The Rising, Shackleton, Wodehouse and a voyage to find a Tyrone giant

Fiction: The Voyage of the Dolphin, Kevin Smith, Sandstone Press, pbk, 228 pages, €13.99

Arctic wonderland: Kevin Smith.
Arctic wonderland: Kevin Smith.

Peter Cunningham

The Edwardians were great adventurers. The likes of Ernest Shackleton, originally from Co Kildare, whose obsession with Antarctica made him a household name, was heir to a tradition that included such famous Victorian explorers as Stanley and Livingstone. Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co Sligo, brought his butler along when he sailed to the Arctic to rescue a pal who had become ice-bound up there. A polar bear shot on this expedition was shipped home, stuffed and mounted. It can be seen today in Lissadell.

Kevin Smith's entertaining novel begins in Trinity College Dublin in early 1916. We are in a privileged world within a world, of student pranks and epic academic underachievement, a tiny universe of dons, fops and elderly servants. The Senior Dean looks out from the new portrait of himself "with majestic leniency". In the comfort of their chambers, a student swaps his "peacock-blue" smoking jacket for a "camphor-scented blazer" before venturing forth. Outside the gates, deep civil unrest will lead to revolution, but one of the chief concerns of the college masters is that their supply of good claret will not be interrupted. Amen to that.

Faced with the looming uncertainty of Home Rule, the Trinity grandees hit upon a hare-brained scheme to bolster the standing of their college before the natives take over, since "God only knows what will happen". They coerce Fitzmaurice, a law student of miserable grades but a nephew of the great Shackleton, to retrieve the skeleton of an Irish giant, "the last of the so-called Tyrone giants", whose remains are said to be buried in the Arctic Archipelago. Such a specimen will restore Trinity's world-class status, the masters tell Fitzmaurice. With "large, liverish lips that he seemed unable to prevent from forming into a pout", the undergraduate enlists two of his college friends, a first-year medic and a student of divinity, to join the expedition. A vessel, the Dolphin, complete with crew, ship's dog and a suffragette stowaway is engaged - and the voyage to the Arctic begins.

A century ago this month, Shackleton, along with Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy, were stranded in the Antarctic ice, oblivious to the momentous events unfolding at home. In the same year, in New York, PG Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster was making his very first appearance, while in Ireland, the stories of Somerville and Ross were entertaining readers. Smith's novel nods to all three of these centenaries. With a gull's-eye view, the story swoops back to Dublin and in a poignant passage gives us the Rising from the point of view of the mother of one of the student adventurers. This Arctic lark may not turn out to be what we first expected, we are thus warned.

The descriptions of life at sea, of storms, seamanship, barren landscapes and esoteric wildlife are never less than appealing. As Dublin recedes and the Dolphin becomes their world, the crew's view of life becomes almost lyrical and their days are interspersed with moments of deep reflection. The presence of the almost illiterate Fitzmaurice fails to dent the pace of the story as further nods can be discerned, to Swift, and to H Rider Haggard, Victorian pioneer of the Lost World literary genre. But it is finally Waugh - the Waugh of A Handful of Dust - that can be scented in the Arctic wonderland as the unexpected finale of this inventive and heart-warming novel unfolds.

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