Saturday, 12 November 2016

Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of Winter is in some ways a snap-shot of early Arctic and Antarctic exploration, bringing to life assorted attempts to map our most inhospitable continents. Linking the stories together is the mysterious discovery in 2009 of a chronometer connected with Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to discover the North-West Passage in 1841. The expedition spawned a flurry of follow-up searches for years, and odd clues were found but never the missing men.

The chronometer found its way into the hands of Cecil Meares, who supplied the dogs and horses for another fateful expedition: Scott’s attempt to be first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen got there first, and his disappearance while searching for another explorer is documented through the eyes of Bess Magids, his Canadian mistress, a fur trader from the North West Territories. There are loops and connections everywhere.

Weaving the narrative together are two current-day characters stranded in Canada’s wintry north: Nelson Nilsson, a drifter in search of his geographer brother, and the woman he picks up from the airport, Fay Morgan. Both are secretive and awkward people who rub each other up the wrong way. Fay’s on a quest to learn more about her grandfather, another character gone missing, and the two soon discover Nelson’s brother Bert has been collating stories about the North-West Passage, stories that include Hugh Morgan.

A book like this might seem unwieldy, but O’Loughlin is a master storyteller, keeping you hooked with every new story thread, many of which would make a terrific novel on their own. He knows how to bring the personalities of historical figures to life; it all brims with vibrant dialogue and evocative descriptions. And while he gives the reader a lot of information, the facts of what really happened are often as intangible as ever. For me, Minds of Winter is one of the stand-out novels of 2016.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Minds of Winter

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