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Cold castaways

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

Jennifer Rohn 29 December 2015

Freeze frame: Herbert Ponting's photo of Robert Scott on the paperback cover

In this novel, as in history, the survivors write the definitive account

Stranded in the middle of nowhere, group dynamics often take a strange turn. In Rebecca Hunt’s latest novel (Penguin, 2015), two trios of explorers in two different centuries transform for the worst on the same fictional island – a drab, joyless rock in Antarctica called Everland.

The first set of explorers perish on the uninhabited island in the early 1900s, around the same year as the ill-fated real-life expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott. The second group of characters – stoked up on a larger-than-life Hollywood film version of their predecessors – are scientists tasked with performing token experiments as part of a PR exercise celebrating the centennial of the first Everland mission. The author flits back and forth between the past and present as each expedition grapples with the isolated and dangerous environment around them, little changed in a hundred years. Modern technology proves unable to guarantee a safe and successful excursion for Everland’s second-ever visitors.

The scientist characters are a mixed bag. The ‘naturalist’ of the first expedition is one in name only, a convenient weakling for the others to bully who shows little curiosity about the world around him. The modern-day bunch are more convincing, bantering, fighting and flirting as young scientists everywhere do. Less satisfying are the descriptions of the research they are meant to be doing. Aside from a few scenes involving penguin tagging, and some throwaway lines about understanding climate change, there isn’t much meat for those interested in Antarctic science. Readers wanting hard-core lab lit set in an extreme polar environment (and who don’t mind the tropes and style of thrillers) would be better off reading The Trudeau Vector by Juris Jurjevics.

Still, Hunt’s novel is satisfying as a psychological drama, and her writing is beautiful, sinister and evocative. The bleak surroundings of Everland is a character itself, like hallucinated nightmare. One character is convinced that the group are being watched by “something devious”. It lurks “outside the boundary of his limited vision, but it [is] certainly near enough to sense.” In another scene, “[F]issures of ice were twisting past him, as mobile as swimming snakes. Armies of stone were evacuating across the beach, whole embankments expanding and contracting in propulsion.” The wind is “the wet, pulmonary grunts of a monster”.

Each character is mirrored by a counterpart in the other time period, suffering similar injuries and succumbing to reminiscent bouts of heroism and cowardice. Although somewhat contrived, this device underscores the universality of human frailty. But the real theme of the book is the unreliability of personal narrative. In this novel, as in history, the survivors write the definitive account, with themselves as intrepid protagonists. The true events, to which only the reader is privy, are buried under the ice with its dead, never to see the light of day.