books: Nice and grim

Dea Birkett breaks the ice; Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? by Paul Wilson, Granta, pounds 15.99

Sometimes cliches illuminate more than any clever phrase ever could. The words we use most - "nice", "grim", "fantastic" - may prove more apt than any inventive adjective. So the fact that this book can be summed up in a stock sentence - "All life is a journey" - is not to be sniffed at. This tired maxim is given fresh meaning by Paul Wilson's disturbing third novel.

Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? takes a familiar footstepping story - 20th-century hero traces the route of pioneering explorer - and twists it into a bleak, powerful and, ultimately, unfamiliar tale. Wilson interweaves the life of Gabriel Emerson, growing up in northern England during the Second World War, with that of his namesake, Emerson the Elizabethan explorer. Both came from the same mining town, both were working class boys, and both longed to be someone and somewhere else.

Gabriel's mother died giving birth to him, and his father became a caretaker for a hotel-cum-brothel frequented by Italian and German internees who worked in the town. When five local boys went missing, including Gabriel's older brother, their families believed it was the internees who had stolen and killed them. Young Gabriel witnessed the town's revenge - the internees were burnt to death in a barn. From that day, he did not speak and he is put in a local home for the "feeble-minded". To escape, Gabriel recreates in his mind the Elizabethan Emerson's final voyage in search of the North West Passage, "sustained by a journey in a singing sea of ice".

The Elizabethan Emerson is said to have written to his son, "Sometimes, not going is the death. Sometimes, not setting off is the betrayal". For both Emersons, stillness is tantamount to dying. Gabriel's incarceration, Emerson's men trapped in the Arctic ice: both are harbingers of death. The white whales of the title continue innocently feeding in a fjord as the mouth freezes over. Soon, the ice reaches so far that the whales cannot hold their breath long enough to escape under it into the open sea. The ice grows over them until they suffocate.

If all life is a journey, anything that lives must be on the move. In this novel, motions, large or small, are the lungs of life. But all journeys have an ending, and Gabriel's home is closing down. He has nowhere to go except towards death. Refusing to leave, he surrenders to the cold, like his namesake, and is frozen - immobilised - by the ice. Sometimes the book threatens to strangle itself on excessive symbolism, and its bleakness can be trying. These journeys are uncomfortable paths to tread - and read. Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World? is not a nice novel, but it is grim and fantastic.

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