Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan

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Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An old and well-known tale turned into a most impressive novel, getting us right into the situation and sharing it with all the well-wrought personalities surrounding Scott of the Antarctic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 978-0755348350

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In 1917, Captain Robert Falcon Scott's widow seeks to get a book on the market to redress the balance, to counter the rumour, public opinion and growing thought that not all was right with Scott and his exploits in Antarctica. Seemingly, in 2009, Robert Ryan seeks the same. However his book is certainly not just concentrating on Scott - we get a lot of Oates, Evans, the other Evans, and all the rest of the fatal party - as well as Shackleton, Amundsen and more.

We probably open this book knowing something of this most classic of real life twentieth century legends. We probably read it wondering why this is a novel and not a biography, were it not for the great balance of everything involved. Here, whatever the format of writing, we clearly see how naval people, and a singular dream, came into a gang of hardworking men, and came to be heroes. Particular attention is paid to 'Titus' Oates - a career soldier in amongst left-over Victorian imperialism, and initially only interested in the cavalry for the polo and hunting horses. His turning into an explorer - and ending with the most famous (nearly-)last words of all - is worth the price of admission alone.

These are well-formed men, standing on the edge of their encampment, breath frosting as it leaves their mouths, gazing in awe at the southern aurorae, and wondering where in this untouched, isolated wilderness their gods might be. There is also the much more earthy, everyday consideration of them - I will be left with the unsavoury image for a very long time, of them snapping frozen stools from within their underwear - when it ever got warm enough to get down through the layers that far.

I don't think one considers at this remove how these people were living, in their rarefied world, passing the time with their nicknames ('The Owner', 'the Soldier') and banter, their moonlight football on the ice. Scott has perhaps been in danger - in Britain at least - of being deified, and not the cause of a huge budgetary problem, and an expedition with many unbalanced priorities. I think you need to know the history rather well to have known what we get here about Mrs Scott - Kathleen - back at home.

This then is a novel you will learn a lot from, about human nature perhaps, but definitely about this unique episode in history, and the men who were there living it. This is also a book you can get a lot else from. The charged emotions of all there come at you just as well as the windchill factor spreads off the page. The writing could be even more descriptive and evocative, and would never appear flowery or woolly, but as it is you're always there.

The framing device, and some bits that are more supposition, are all that seem to nudge this into a novel - and I can see details that Scott lovers will not be too keen to see raked up again. Our author clearly has genned up supremely on his subject, and if the world needed one more general biography of all the Antarctic pioneers, he would be the man I'd choose to write it. Those, however, are perhaps already too common. This book, however, is quite uncommon. Even though I had some knowledge and much interest in this tale - and of course knew the end - this was eminently readable, and for a chunk of 500pp, gripping and sustained.

This comes down as the best evocation of the exploratory spirit, using real documentation to make faction, since Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne. It seldom drifted from being a 5 star read, and I have to recommend it widely.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Younger readers will be safer learning more about the toilet exploits of the explorers in Serious Survival: How to Poo in the Arctic and Other Essential Tips for Explorers by Marshall Corwin. Funnily enough, the approach of the two books is a little different.

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