This novel, originally published in 1978, is set in the Antarctic, 1909. In Keneally's preface, he states that he wanted to discuss the ever-fascinating subject of all-male expeditions to the South Pole in a way consistent with the times; to look at an expedition within an Edwardian mindset. Although all of the gentlemanly Edwardian explorers give no hint of conflict in their journals, Keneally wanted to approach a situation rife with it. This idea meshes well with another book I've been slowly reading, Francis Spufford's I May be some time. In that book, Spufford examines the Idea of ice in the Edwardian imagination. In this novel, Keneally takes that sublime appeal of the icy wilderness and peoples it with prosaic Edwardian men. It succeeds admirably, even with a few loose ends left dangling.
It is a reminiscence told by Anthony Piers, the expedition's artist. He is 92, living in a seniors residence in California, and this distancing in time allows us to benefit from his pointing out the differences in belief he was under as a young man and as a seasoned adult. The group of 26 men is heading to Antarctica just a few years before Ernest Shackleton's Endurance would head to the South Pole. Sir Eugene Stewart is leading a scientific cohort, but along with the varied geologists, zoologists, & meteorologists is included a journalist, Victor Henneker. He is supposed to supply news to the outside world, but as is discovered, he is keeping a logbook not only of worthy news but of all the scandals of his fellow travellers, for blackmail or for tabloid income. Various fellows are revealed within the journal as adulterers, thieves, or heaven forbid, homosexuals. When Victor is found dead outside at a weather screen, the tenor of the isolated group changes. Was it an accident? Murder? Was one of their small number responsible for such a violent act? Who can be trusted? Was it the mythical Forbes-Chalmers, a lost individual from a previous expedition rumoured to be living as a hermit on the Antarctic plain? As Anthony is involved in questioning his colleagues, his Edwardian ideals are battered, foreshadowing the loss of innocence of the coming war years. As the situation comes to a head, Anthony realizes what is about to happen, and says, "It was the act that rendered the condition of the century terminal. Nothing ever since has surprised me."
The voice of this novel evokes the Edwardian gentleman, and the descriptions of an Antarctic station are superb. Despite the figure of Forbes-Chalmers flickering in and out of the story and fading away in a flimsy manner at the end, this is a closed circle. You can feel the cold and the dark and the small society ensconced there.