The Solitude of Thomas Cave, by Georgina Harding

The glacial zone of the human heart
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The Independent Culture

The year is 1616, and a group of whalers are coming to the end of the hunting season aboard the Heartsease on the island Svalbard. The cabin boy Thomas Goodlard relates how one quiet man, Thomas Cave, becomes involved in a bet to stay the winter at the whaling station to prove to a belligerent first mate that it can be done. The men throw down their money and set sail, and Cave begins his attempt to stay alive throughout almost perpetual darkness. He's tormented in turn by avalanches, polar bears and starvation, but Cave's real torture is the haunting hallucinations of his dead wife and baby. When the boat returns after the winter, Goodlard finds a changed man.

The idea of a lone man undergoing emotional trials and ultimately emerging either victorious or ruined has been told since stories were invented - from Jesus to Steppenwolf through to Süskind's Grenouille in Perfume, men have separated themselves from the world and rejoined it changed. Georgina Harding's debut novel is closest to Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (which also features the reappearance of a dead wife), in which the characters take their inner demons with them into unknown territory. Although Cave is the one who faces his ghosts in a literal sense, every man on the Heartsease has a mirror held up to him by his experience. If Cave is Harding's Kurtz, then Goodlard is her Charlie Marlow.

Like Conrad, Harding is interested in the ways that man tries to tame chaos. At an early point in the book, the bored whalers flay a seal alive, throw it back into the sea and watch it die just for fun. It's a shocking scene, first matter-of-factly told by Goodlard, who notices only that Cave does not enjoy the "sport", then much later by Cave himself, who identifies himself with the seal. In a touching moment on Svalbard he plays fiddle to the seals because they remind him of people. Cave sees in the creatures an Eden-like innocence and strength of will that seems to have died in humans but that he, through his solitude, seems to have gained.

Harding does not cram her novel with research. Her approach is refreshingly spare compared to some historical novels that force-feed us period detail; she allows her parable to breathe. Her description of landscape is wonderful, evidence of her former career as a travel writer, and her depiction of a glacial, wild land is both highly readable and an effective, if obvious, use of the pathetic fallacy to symbolise Cave's inner struggle. Only in the section in which Cave is at his most traumatised does her prose become somewhat florid, a rare stumbling block in an otherwise wonderfully well-written story. Plot is minimal - this is a tale all about feeling and tone - but read it like a long short story and her tale is ultimately rewarding.

Breaking with her literary forebears in this field, Harding does not provide us with a study of good and evil, but of grief and regret, and how the willpower found through faith can help overcome human weakness. This faith is not necessarily in God, but in one's own inner strength to face external and internal torments, and in the ability to live alongside nature. At a time when faith of any description seems unfashionable, Harding's parable is a haunting reminder of where we went wrong.