The invisible man marries the Snow Queen

SKATING TO ANTARCTICA by Jenny Diski, Granta pounds 14.99

The Heart of an iceberg is deepest blue, at its most intense at sea level "where the ice is oldest and so compacted that all the air has been forced out". This strange and brilliant book recounts Jenny Diski's journey to Antarctica last year, intercut with another journey into her own heart and soul, an examination of her childhood and her relations with her parents, a father who died in April 1966, a mother who two days later ran screaming out of her daughter's life for ever.

Just as Diski's visit to the bottom of the monstrous world is not a pilgrimage, rather "a hopeful voyage in to whiteness", so she embarks on her inner journey without illusions. She does not seek solace or even an understanding of the forces which wrecked her parents' marriage and instilled in her a longing for oblivion so intense that at 14 she overdosed on her mother's Nembutal and now perpetuates her urge for "whiteout" in her bedroom, in her flat, in her sudden compulsion to reach Antarctica.

Her satisfaction in the end is to find that her recollection is truthful, that her mother, mad and sad rather than bad, was the impossible creature whom she herself had of necessity excluded from her life well before her father's death, and thereafter tried to forget. She might be alive, she might be dead. Diski did not want to know. She felt neither anger nor affection. But even before she voyaged to Antarctica, her own 18-year- old daughter was discovering the bare facts of her grandmother's latter years; with reluctance Diski found herself looking in to the past, questioning elderly ladies who had once been neighbours, revisiting the block of flats where she spent 11 years of childhood; so she shored herself up against the outcome, probing the nature of memory.

Once there had been a small loved child called Jennifer. Her mother took her skating every day: "You could skate before you could walk." She was to be a star and her mother would share her glory. Both parents were children of Jewish immigrants; their daughter was to have the best clothes, the best education; she would achieve. By the time Jennifer was four the money had gone and the quarrelling had begun. Here is an extraordinary portrait of a solitary child determined to survive; "portrait" is the necessary word for Diski tells us "Any event occurring to Jennifer always includes Jennifer in the frame. The image is not from her eyes ... but seen from the outside, from some eyes beyond the frame."

Jennifer sits on her father's knee: "What the hell I was doing there (if that actual moment ever existed and is not just a representation of a general memory), standing at one side, at a little distance from the armchair the two of them are sitting in, no more substantial than a pair of observing and possibly ironic eyes, I cannot say. Jennifer was frightened of ghosts. Perhaps she had every right to be."

At weekends Jennifer and her father wandered blissfully round London, going to museums and cinemas and Chinese restaurants. At home her mother waited, angry and excluded. Later weekends were spent visiting her in a mental hospital, re-creating that early merriment on their long walks through the suburbs by knocking on doors so that Jennifer could "use the bathroom. It became a game, a kind of roulette ... Those brief visits belonged to the realm of our earlier museum wanderings; the house and people, the exhibits; our meeting people and seeing how they lived, like the stories my father used to make up about the things in glass cases. They were adventures in to unknown worlds, people whose houses, whose lives looked to me so solid and stable."

Until her books were taken by the bailiffs Jennifer read, played with other children in the block and ranged in total freedom about her domain, the limitless corridors, stairs, fire-escapes and surrounding pavements of Paramount Court. "Even now I can't imagine any suburban or country childhood that would have provided me with so much."

But within the flat, listening to nocturnal warfare, she repeated her prayers for peace a hundred times over, a hundred times tracing a star of David on her chest. She became nervous, elusive and wary of what each parent called the Truth. Her mother was hostile and critical, her father erratic; when she was 11 he left for good. Eviction followed, then years of constant moving, expulsion from school, passing back and forth between parents, Nembutal and mental hospitals. The mother of a school friend offered her a home, her father died and her mother disappeared. No one tried to find her.

There is not an ounce of self-pity in Diski's bleak account, and little warmth either. Images of ice recur, ice that is slippery, treacherous, cracking; a skating rink which promises infinity but brings the skater round and round in ever-repeating circles. In Antarctica Diski finds a Utopia, a no-place of floating Halcyon icebergs, constantly changing, melting, reforming; yet a place which "would also remain essentially the same, its elements nearly rejigged ... Nothing there stays the same but nothing changes."

Such paradoxes abound in a book of dazzling variety, which weaves disquisitions on indolence, truth, inconsistency, ambiguousness, the elephant seal, Shackleton, boredom, and over and again memory, into a sparse narrative, caustic observation and vivid description of the natural world. While Diski's writing is laconic, her images are haunting; her honesty transcends pain. The same honesty turns her away from the dream landscape of the ice world to a practical, perfect place, her cabin on the ship. Here there are white walls and white sheets. Here she may watch the snow falling silently from a heavy sky on to the sea.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent