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Book review: Everland By Rebecca Hunt

 

Never was there a blanker canvas than the Earth’s poles for showing off human folly. Once they were the obsession of reckless explorers, desperate to plunge flags into virgin territory. Nowadays they’re the preserve of scientists, eager to measure how swiftly we are destroying our planet.

Hunt’s novel concerns two Antarctic expeditions to the fictional island of Everland. They are widely separated in time. One is a legendary and infamous trip in 1913. Much later, the centenary of the tragedy is marked by a scientific sortie back to the island.

Part of Hunt’s research consisted of a sojourn of her own in the Arctic. Her accounts of dodging frostbite and of disorientating seasons of endless night or day have all the necessary verisimilitude.

But there is much more to Hunt than documentary realism. In her debut novel, Mr Chartwell, she imagined the fabled black dog of Winston Churchill’s depressions as a real life beast, to tremendous effect. Here her quirky creativity is evident again (she is a fine artist by background). Most obviously, there is the name of her eponymous setting: “Everland” recalls both the Neverland of Peter Pan and the seemingly immutable glories of the empire that reached its zenith before the First World War.

Her portrait of the 1913 expedition is faithful to the era of Scott and Shackleton. It takes pains to capture the era’s ludicrous masculine mores. The leader is Napps, a naval officer of an unusually judgemental bent. Millet-Bass, an easy-going seaman, and Dinners, a hapless and impractical naturalist, suffer under this stony martinet.

A century later, stresses remain in the follow-up trip, which also has three members. Fortunately, the leader this time, Decker, is as sensitive as he is seasoned. Of the two women under his command it is again the scientist, Brix, who lacks the necessary survival skills, to the chagrin of the formidably bitchy Jess.

Proximity and privation erode goodwill in each group, while the island’s eerie atmosphere exacts a toll. Hunt shows the schisms, some comical, others as forbidding as the crevasses slashing the landscape. And when crises arise, it is unclear whether solidarity can prevail over selfishness.

Everland deals with the conflict between historical records and the realities of the human relationships that lie behind them. Hunt delivers a story that manages to be both surreally absurd and grimly captivating.

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