Books: A vast place which is always too much and never enough

Ginny Dougary hails a novel of Arctic exploration which stands comparison with the 19th century greats
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The Voyage of the Narwhal

by Andrea Barrett Flamingo pounds 16.99

How little the essential nature of polar exploration has altered since the mid-19th century, the period in which Andrea Barrett has set her deeply satisfying novel. For all the high-tech navigational equipment and radio back-up available today, expeditions are still hazardous undertakings, requiring huge sponsorship; their leaders still bent on being the first, the best, the most - something; the great ice-scapes of the North and South still dominated by men who want to be supermen, losing their ears, the tips of their fingers or toes to frostbite, hardly able to see what's in front of them for thinking of how it will look back home.

But then, as now, there were women who yearned - not publicly, to be sure, for fear of ridicule or censure - to be exceptional, too. Or, at least, to be part of something exceptional. Women who saw in those great tracts of frozen emptiness a blank canvas on which the human emotions can be painted most vividly; who wanted to be part of the adventure, not content with experiencing it merely second-hand. Like Alexandra Copeland, whose strengths emerge quietly throughout the novel. Longing for her work as a fledgling engraver to be recognised, when she hears the men complaining about too much travel, her inward response is: "Imagine being able to say that ... Too much, when all she'd ever felt was Not enough." Or the author herself, who spent her Cape Cod childhood reading about the polar heroes, Shackleton, Peary, Nansen, dreaming of being an explorer when she grew up, without pausing to reflect on why there were no popular heroines.

is, in part, an answer to that question. But the author's aim is infinitely more ambitious than that, taking in her sweep the great intellectual and ethical imperatives of the time - questions of race, slavery, evolution - which still resonate today; embracing history and science, ideas and emotion; exploring the shifting shadows of friendship and betrayal and ambition. And, most impressively, in common with all the great 19th-century novelists, she grips the reader with a story which demands to be heard, one shot through with an integrity of purpose, a moral certainty which made me want to cheer.

At the centre of the novel is a fictitious expedition undertaken in 1855- 1856, which falls between two actual polar missions mounted by Philadelphian explorer Elisha Kent Kane, the Arctic succes fou of his day, and McClintock's discovery and retrieval of relics from Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition of 1845. The invention of this journey liberated the author from the constructions of observing literal historical accuracy (although the work is informed by her extensive research into the expeditions and intellectual currents of the period) in order to draw more material into the one narrative.

The result is a fascinating mesh of real characters in the background - philosophers, explorers, naturalists and some of the Inuit encountered by Kane - with the central characters who are imagined, the men on the Narwhal and the women left behind in Philadephia. The hero is not the expedition leader, Zeke Voorhees, a man so favoured with good looks that women dare not look him in the face for fear that their desire will betray them, but, more interestingly, his prospective brother-in-law, an unsung naturalist - Erasmus Darwin Wells - who is pierced by his sense of thwarted opportunity. It is through his eyes that we are drawn into seeing the mysteries of the Arctic as though for the first time; the thrill of discovery without film, video and photographs having captured it all before you.

The journals and unsent letters of the other men on board offer different perspectives on the journey and their alarming leader, who struts around the deck with an Arctic fox cub perched on his shoulder like a preposterous cockatoo; the young cook, Ned Kynd, a refugee from the Irish famine who first made an appearance in Ship Fever, Barratt's award-winning collection of short stories soon to be published in Britain, and Dr Boerhaave, whose friendship helps Erasmus to endure, all too briefly, the unendurable. It's a device which Beryl Bainbridge employed to such touching effect in The Birthday Boys, her fictionalised account of Captain Scott's tragic expedition to the South Pole. Zeke's compulsion to be the first explorer to find the North West Passage also draws to mind Scott's lost race against Amundsen. My one small reservation about the book concerns the characterisation of Zeke; Barrett's reluctance to draw us into his inner life - he, virtually alone, does not keep a journal, an omission which takes on a wider significance towards the end of the novel - means we are rarely able to respond to him as much more than a vehicle of his own monstrous egotism. I might have expected a writer of Barrett's generosity to invest her villains with some leavening traits.

I first heard about Sir John Franklin when I was in the High Arctic two years ago, staying in the Narwhal Hotel, the most expensive and basic accommodation I have encountered, reporting on the first - yes - women's expedition to the North Pole. Base camp was in Resolute Bay on the tip of Cornwall's Island, in Canada's far northern reaches, where Franklin and the crews of his abandoned ice-held ships, Erebus and Terror, went missing in 1845. For the next decade, expedition after expedition was sent (many by Lady Jane Franklin, who refused to believe that her husband was dead) to try to discover the fate of the missing men. The mystery also captured the imagination of the Americans, and Barrett's novel's derives much of its authentic ring from the accounts of real expeditions of the time.

To read about the discovery of Edward Belcher's empty ship, the Resolute (after which the bay was named), and the graves of three of Franklin's seamen on Beechey Island, gave me an unexpected jolt of recognition. I shall not easily forget the terrible desolation of that place, the small bleached wood monuments to the lost young men, the chill of the icy wind, the vast lozenge-shaped cliffs in the distance.

Before she completed the book, Barrett visited the Canadian Arctic herself, camping with her Inuit guides on the sea-ice edge of Baffin Bay; an experience which helped her to see more clearly what her explorers must have seen, and to understand their struggles to describe it. The unique intensity of the light, for instance, "like silver, like crystal, like oil - but not, really, like anything else; Erasmus could find no comparison, he gave up. The light was like itself."

Since my trip to the Arctic, I have developed something of a polar obsession - but it is hard to imagine anyone not loving this novel. Barrett's big, arcing themes are handled with such deftness and unshowy confidence. She writes with the precision of the scientist she once trained to be, and so well that I often found myself smiling with the sheer pleasure of reading the words. Her prose is steady and restrained, but the images of the ice- scape dazzle and scorch the mind's eye. The story itself is thrilling, with enough unexpected twists to make the reviewer wary of giving too much away. But I cannot resist applauding the delicacy of Barrett's decision to enter into the minds of the Eskimo mother and son who are exhibited on stages across America - passages charged with a poetic, dreamlike intensity; by restoring their voices it is as though she has shielded them from being observed by us, too. She makes us feel most eloquently, to paraphrase from her book, how it is easier to investigate thousands of miles of frozen tundra than it is to explore the private sea of one's being.