Very disturbing, very dark teen-read.
Geraldine McCaughrean, whose Not The End of The World, a subversive way of looking at Noah’s Flood, I had absolutely adored, here turns her pull-few-punches gaze on a story of the Antarctic, marrying revisitings of Scott’s expedition with the story of a young girl, and a fascination/obsession with Titus Oates, from that expedition, and her own, much darker trip to the Antarctic.
I am devoted to books with Polar, frozen settings, and I do very much like fine writing for teens which does not patronise, dumb down, or underestimate the intelligence of that audience. As McCaughrean is definitely a writer without an ounce of ‘talking down to’ in her writing, and is moreover a writer who makes any reader – teen or far beyond the YA world, work and pay attention whilst at the same time being driven on by ‘what happens next and to whom’ urgency, I really expected to love this book
And I did and I didn’t. The central character, Sym, is intelligent, wounded, rather a loner, and out of step within the world of her peers, who appear to be an unlikeable, superficial, tiresome bunch,
For some crime committed by my ancestors in the dark and forgotten days, I came into the world already tarred and feathered. With shyness. It hurts terribly-every bit as much as hot tar choking every pore-and I wish I could get rid of it. But it hurts a lot less than having someone try and peel the shyness off. That’s like being flayed alive.
Sym is extremely likeable, an attractive combination of maturity and integrity but despite some sort of emotional wisdom, she is extremely innocent of ‘street smarts’, and therefore extremely vulnerable to those without the integrity she has. And that is pretty well every character in the book.
Sym has a rich inner fantasy life. Her father died when she was quite young, and she has constructed a strong inner male hero, protector, guide, who teeters between father figure, someone SHE protects, and possible future lover. This fantasy figure is Titus Oates, always in her head and heart, with whom she has imagined conversations, whom she goes to for advice – he almost functions as an aspect of her best self. She is extremely complex, and absolutely out of step with a more simplistic, unsubtle world, especially a world filled with people on the make.
I failed to completely love this book in part because the situations Sym was manipulated into were very distressing indeed to an adult reader. I suspect the intended audience may have slightly tougher skins, certainly those that are possessed of street smarts and affect a world-weary demeanour. I found myself slightly shocked that this is a book for children. But it can’t be denied that the world contains plenty of people who DO prey on, and exploit children, in many different ways.
McCaughrean tells her story sensitively and some of my sense of disturbance, paradoxically comes because she is so light touch. She trusts the reader’s sensibility. . It is a book, apart from Sym herself and her imaginary presence of Titus Oates, pretty much without another major redeeming or redeemable character, whether adult or child/teen.
Sym herself is the only light, brightness. The frozen, indifferent, beautiful, treacherous landscape is a major character in this.
I stood on the edge of Camp Aurora where icefalls tumbled away from me like frozen river rapids and formed a buckled chute downwards on to the Ice Shelf that exists in place of the sea. And I looked westwards across it – a thousand kilometres of flat, frozen nothingness…..The Ice doesn’t differentiate between land and water; it just smothers the whole continent, from the middle outwards, then keeps on spreading outwards over the sea, roofing over huge sea inlets for a thousand kilometres.
The only concession to the age of her audience, I felt, was the ending. Not quite one which works for this reader, I felt the author had pulled a little back from reality, allowed a couple of coincidences too far, to provide something a little more palatable, a little less bleak