The Birthday Boys, By Beryl Bainbridge

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The Independent Culture

This year marks the centenary of the start of Captain Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, so this is a well-timed reissue of Beryl Bainbridge's 1991 novel, which recounts the story of the expedition's painful progress and tragic end.

It is told in five first-person sections, each from the point of view of a different member of the team, including Scott himself and ending with Captain Oates. That the reader knows they're all doomed lends a grim irony to the jubilation with which they set off.

Bainbridge's prose is economical and intensely visual, evoking the beautiful waste of the Antarctic, the pitiless blizzards, the camaraderie and the jealousies among the men, the obscene depredations of frostbite. It is heartbreaking when Taff Evans, physically the strongest of the team, finally cracks: "All them bloody dreams turned as rotten as this bloody stump."

The emotional reticences are even more moving than the outbursts; before Oates makes his final exit, he says, of his friend Birdie: "I wanted to kiss him goodbye, but was too shy." The heroism of the expedition was pointless. But it was still heroism.

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