Wegener's Jigsaw by Clare Dudman

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The Independent Culture

An obsession with a fantastic-seeming hypothesis which turned out to be true, a long-suffering wife, a fatal attraction to Arctic exploration: Alfred Wegener's life offers pretty promising ingredients for a novel. A man of action as well as ideas, he remains little-known, even though his theory of continental drift is now the stuff of textbooks. This Clare Dudman sets out to remedy in her convincing, ice-bound narrative.

In re-imagining Wegener's life as fiction, rather than offering it as straight biography or popular science, she faces a number of problems. Wegener is important because his ideas about the history of the Earth led to the modern theory of plate tectonics: the idea that continental land-masses move around as part of even larger parts of the Earth's crust which are continually being created and destroyed. So the science has to be right.

His ideas were mainly developed in libraries and lecture halls, though, so his several visits to the icy wastes of Greenland are more obviously dramatic and could easily overwhelm the story. Then again, a focus on Wegener, who died on his last Arctic excursion in 1930, excludes the scientifically more interesting part of the history of plate tectonics, which began in the 1950s.

Fortunately, none of these things has prevented Dudman from creating a very readable tale about a compelling character. A scientist herself, she gets inside Wegener's ideas and makes them seem as exciting now as they did three-quarters of a century ago. We understand that he was intellectually as well as physically restless, working on the formation of raindrops via ice-crystals and the origin of the craters of the moon as well as trying to understand why the shapes of the continents fit together like puzzle pieces. We see how his family, scientific and explorer's lives fitted together, and feel the grip of his big idea about the history of our planet.

To this mix, Dudman adds two crucial things. One is her own evocation of the unforgiving beauty of the Arctic. Survivable, if you are lucky, but never hospitable, it exercises a fascination which led some to endure almost unimaginable hardship. The description of the deadly grind of moving men, dogs, horses and sleds across the ever-changing ice-sheet has been done before, but rarely as well.

The other crucial success is her rendering of Wegener's voice: the retrospective narrator who revisits episodes from his life from a frozen moment on his final Greenland journey. This voice, based on her reading of expedition diaries, is what unifies the book, from its first evocation of an infant tumble into a Berlin canal, through early scientific forays, his marriage to the daughter of one of his mentors, fighting and surviving a First World War bullet in the neck, and incessant controversy about his theory, which geologists found impossible to believe.

Always there is the call of the ice, the urge to go back one more time - for research, but also for the company of others who wanted to test themselves against extremities.

Although there are good scholarly sources, this voice is really Dudman's creation of one possible Wegener. I believed it. It makes up for the lack of dramatic tension, since we know how the story ends, by making you feel you understand the compulsion to stage the last, doomed expedition.

And it is a splendid vehicle for a depiction of a time, not so long ago, when science could still cost you your life.

Jon Turney's 'Lovelock and Gaia: signs of life' is published by Icon Books