The Solitude Of Thomas Cave, by Georgina Harding

Powerful plot and outstanding descriptions conceal fine cracks in this icy tale
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The Independent Culture

If you are finding this winter cold, console yourself by considering a truly inhospitable climate. Most of this debut novel is set in the Arctic Circle, and it tells of an epic challenge of endurance long before the advent of motorised sledges. Early in the 17th century, whalers began setting off from European ports and travelling as far north as possible, braving ice floes and storms to secure priceless cargoes of blubber.

Thomas Cave is taciturn, aloof from the camaraderie of the rest of the Heartsease's crew. Their destination is the Svalbard archipelago (sometimes called Spitsbergen, the name of its largest island), desolate even in summer when night never falls. Whales abound here, but departure cannot be delayed for fear of the encroaching ice.

One night, a rum-fuelled discussion ensues about the hell of the islands in winter. Cave declares he could survive a whole season in frozen darkness, following goading by Carnock, the bullying mate. The unyielding Cave strikes a perilous wager. He is supplied with food and fuel, and left to his fate as the ship sails off and the temperature starts to drop.

The cold is predatory, freezing Cave's supplies even when a couple of feet from his fire. Scurvy is another insidious foe, kept at bay only by eating dried grasses. Worst is the danger of madness, which becomes acute when Cave begins to see visions of his wife and child. As his terrifying ordeal progresses, it becomes clear the wager was a pretext; that it is personal tragedy which has led him to seek out the harshest solitude.

Georgina Harding's novel was inspired by the journal of an Icelandic seaman, Jon Olafsson. He visited Svalbard in 1619 and his memoir tells of an Englishman who laid a bet that he could spend a year alone on the ice. Harding makes limited attempts to render Cave's experience in 17th-century prose, but readers should be grateful for her anachronistic text. Her descriptions of scenery are outstanding, such as the glistening streams that run into a bog, "a temple of white streaks that weave out and back into one another like the boughs and twigs of a tree". Elsewhere, the sustained use of third-person narration in the present tense makes her writing overwrought. This flaw is not irredeemable, because her central plot device of triumph over adversity compensates so powerfully. Thomas Cave's ordeal should hold readers fast in an icy grip.

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