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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy