The Ice-Cold Heaven by Mirko Bonne

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The Ice-Cold Heaven by Mirko Bonne

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Shackleton's nightmarish attempts to cross the Antarctic are aided and described by a stowaway in this rich and intelligent piece of faction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth and Co
ISBN: 9780715645840

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They say that if you fall off a horse you should get back on one right away, but even so… I don't think many people who had only just left their first love – a shopgirl in their village – for their second – exploring the world on sailing cargo ships – would leap to a further voyage having been wrecked and stranded off the coast of South America for well over a week. But Merce here does – he wants to follow his best friend on to a ship called The Endurance and head with Shackleton to the Antarctic. But Merce is only seventeen, and is rejected – causing him to stow away onto one of the world's worst ever journeys.

First off, it does strike one as slightly unusual that it is a German author creating this book, complete with an evocation of Merce's south Wales childhood and the very British sense of exploration and hero-worship so evident in the Scott-era stories. But clearly the pull of the far South is a universal one, and it is an extreme that would concern any story-teller. Here we are in the realms of faction, if only because the real-life Merce was called Perce. If anything the clarity of the writing, the sense of a historical story being told in a modern way – and, OK, a very thin chance Merce and his friend were homosexual lovers – reminded me of the adult output of John Boyne.

But despite all the efforts – and the translator clearly did not have a completely easy time – there is a little something missing that does not bring the book to those great heights. I'm only sorry I couldn't quite pin down what that something was. There's definitely craft here – the first page alone creates an artistic mismatch of the romance inherent in the knowledge of old jack-tars, and colloquial sailor's idiom. I've read a few Antarctic books and none have gone into this journey with such depth and detail, so there's always something new on every page. You could make a case for there being too much detail – I don't think the research (or invention) is worn very lightly at all in some instances. It's a book that also has to hide from the fact that the path to its ending is predetermined by history.

It still remains, however, a very intriguing novel. It does successfully take the reader to the coldness of the frozen wastes, and the hardship involved in the story is vividly presented. It's a rich tale in this telling, with the warp and weft involving all the nature in the seas, the colours on- and off-board the ship, and the characters stuck there instead of perhaps fighting away in World War One. It's even a book that breaks my first, long-held and I thought permanent rule of literature, that no good can ever come of quoting TS Eliot as an epigraph. The events it brings to life are having their centenary just around the corner from when I write this, and I do hope it gets a healthy trade-wind as a result and does well, for while not being brilliant it does deserve some success.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

My favourite Antarctic novel remains Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan. For a look at exactly went on down there regarding several expeditions, we recommend 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica by Chris Turney.

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