The Past Is Lo-Fi
Author: Rebecca Hunt
Publisher: Fig Tree
What best defines you – your intentions, your choices, your actions, or what other people make of them in retrospect?
Ninety-nine years apart, two small groups of explorers spend several weeks on a small island in the Antarctic. The 1913 team name the place ”Everland” and lose their lives in the attempt to bring news of it to the world. The 2012 team, whilst bringing enough technology to feel comfortable about their survival prospects, share the previous explorers’ ill-suppressed desire to secure a small chapter in Antarctic history.
Now at her second published novel, Rebecca Hunt has spent about two years working on Everland. This might not say much, unless you’re looking for, and failing to spot clues that the author has never actually visited the location of her narrative. What with the chatty Adélie penguin colonies and herd of fur seals met with by the explorers, each of the terror-inducing nights near the South Pole arrives as a carefully crafted surprise. As the adventurers approach their varied crises, their personalities are revealed bit by tiny bit, through reactions to similar stimuli.
In 1913, First Mate Napps, hardy sailor Millet-Bass and geologist Dinners leave their ship on a dinghy, for a first assessment of the newly discovered island. Separated from their mates by a storm, the three men form an unlikely team in their struggle for survival. In 2012, having become legendary figures, they are familiar to every passionate explorer on the globe. However, Napps has been cast as the villain who abandoned Millet-Bass and the inexperienced Dinners, hoping to save himself only. As we go through the chapters, this general view turns out to derive from a diary kept by Lawrence, the captain of the ship, who gained sponsors for his expeditions by promising to bring back unforgettable stories. His knack for marketing made the published diary hugely popular, nevertheless altering his men’s flesh and blood selves into characters that the public could either identify with, pity, or despise.
The twenty-first century trio, though initially a bit too similar to the legendary twentieth century men, gradually brings to light a whole new plot development. As both the only man and the oldest member of the team, Decker naturally assumes a leading position; Jess, a seasoned traveller, is the one to frown upon Brix’s lack of stamina, while Brix herself, a good scientist who has been offered the trip to Everland as a secret favour from a friend, admits to being the weak link that puts the others at risk. While studying fur seals and their mating rituals, they accidentally discover some traces left by the 1913 explorers. The author’s decision to keep them in the dark, but reveal the meaning of their discoveries to the reader, though questionable, offers us the satisfaction of connecting clues to ultimately see the whole picture. In the words of the long undervalued Napps: ”How time tricks us into seeing who we really are, and what choices we make.” Whether that is a trick or an unsolicited gift remains to be discussed.
I can imagine people stopping this writer in the street to congratulate her on the plot. As far as fictional polar adventures go, this is possibly a more remarkable achievement than McEwan’s Solar. The theme of collective memory and its deviations from personal memory gives the book a larger scope.
We are given the cold hard facts about each team of explorers, while they are kept in the dark all the way through, failing to understand each other’s choices and how these connect to past facts. As satisfying as finding out ”the whole truth” is, one does at times wish not to be given many more hints than the main characters.
This novel will appeal to those who enjoy adventure and detective tales. Anyone interested in the redemption of the ”bad guy” will also find this an interesting read.