Everland, by Rebecca Hunt, Fig Tree, RRP£12.99, 304 pages
Rebecca Hunt’s new novel Everland tells the story of two Antarctic journeys a century apart: the first, in 1913, in the three-masted Kismet, and the second in 2012. The Everland of the title is the island that both expeditions survey, and the narrative focuses on each of these three-person field trips.
Without direct reference to Captain Scott’s expedition, which ended in his and four fellow explorers’ deaths in 1912, Hunt pays homage in many ways, not least in her use of proper names. Addison is her first expedition’s doctor (Scott’s was Atkinson), its captain is Lawrence (“Titus” Oates’ real first name), and there’s a walk-on character named Pennell (Harry Pennell was Scott’s naval captain, who piloted the Terra Nova and later drowned at the Battle of Jutland). And Tennyson’s line from his poem “Ulysses” (1842) – “To strive, to seek” – which the Scott expedition’s survivors inscribed on a cross erected on Observation Hill in Antarctica, is invoked early in the novel.
In her title Hunt nods to Peter Pan author JM Barrie, who had an ambiguous relationship with Scott based on an uneasy brand of paternal tenderness; as Hunt rightly says in this novel, the whole Lost Boys scenario was crucial to the subsequent deification of Scott after he perished in the bright white silence of that strange continent.
The two narratives are tightly interwoven and deftly handled. Hunt is particularly keen on direct speech, and her use of it is artful. She has much to say about the hinterland: the emotional interior of these very odd people who set off for the faraway south – to escape what? Sensibly, she draws no conclusions. I won’t spoil the story but there is plenty of drama and, in the end, the two expeditions converge.
Hunt has a keen eye for visual detail and conjures the landscape with skill. “The stumpy, knee-height Adélies [penguins],” she writes, “had white rings circling each eye and were as conspicuously immaculate as brand new trainers.” To research the novel, the author spent a month on a traditional sailing ship in the Arctic Circle and interviewed an Antarctic scientist about his work.
Although she does not make direct comparisons, Hunt is attuned to the conflict between field assistants and scientists in the contemporary Antarctic (the field assistant on the modern expedition feels herself to be a “slave”). Naturally, the cold itself is a character: sledging at minus 30C, the 1913 group “felt that their teeth were being screwed out at the root”. Both field trips experience the short period in which the Antarctic has a light cycle – those two brief months between permanent light and permanent dark. “A horizontal light flared across Everland,” Hunt writes, “which caused crazily elongated shadows and burnished everything in golden, almost unbearably nostalgic colours.”
Hunt examines what she calls “the social Venn diagram” of both expeditions. Through judicious selection of detail from two ostensibly different ventures, rather than through overt commentary, she reveals the universal aspects of polar ventures: there in the wasteland the human character is seen in its essential form.
Similarities, rather than differences, interest this author. She explores not glaciers and icefields but the paths we decide to follow – or at any rate the serendipity that determines the manner in which we stagger through life. “How time tricks us into seeing who we really are and what choices we make,” she comments. I am not sure that, in this novel, it ever gets us anywhere; but that probably doesn’t matter.
Hunt is an accomplished writer – her first novel, which dealt with Churchill’s depression, was the well received Mr Chartwell – but I am not convinced by her attempts to bring the language up to date in her passages on the modern expedition. Phrases such as “empty-brained gormlessness” don’t sit particularly well in any book. Similarly, she can be anachronistic in her historical comments – Scott would never have written, “It was enough to drive anyone crazy.”
I once spent seven months in the Antarctic, largely in a lonely tent, and I recognised many of the scenes Hunt describes in these pages – dazzling night sunshine, food boxes demarcating the space between sleeping bags, the tyranny of the VHF (very high frequency) radio near one’s head. I enjoyed Everland’s descriptions of the particular biology of the Peri-Antarctic islands: “Tiny flowers bloomed in the plush green fur of moss and lichen that covered the scree slope between the cliffs.” Not many people have seen that. One never gets over that experience of stepping out of the world, and Hunt acknowledges this in her rather captivating novel. I have never got over it, anyway. It makes the rest of life look black-and-white.
Sara Wheeler is author of ‘Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica’ (Vintage)