Dead Men by Richard Pierce.
If you cast your mind back a few months, I hosted Richard’s post about Captain Scott’s fateful last expedition and about his novel Dead Men. I’ve been intending to write a review for it for ages, but life keeps intervening and I’ve only now go a chance to do it.
I admit I bought the book because of the fictionalised account of Scott’s last days, and I also confess that when Richard said on Twitter that the story is a love story, I was put off, simply because of a knee jerk response to the idea of romance. Silly me. There’s a world of difference between a love story and romance, and this book is not just one love story but numerous ones.
There’s a love story set in the modern day, between the distant relative of one of Scott’s men trying to find out how her relative really died, and the hesitant, gentle Adam who rescues her when she faints on the train.
There’s the very British love story between Scott and his beloved wife, all duty and stiff-upper lips and such solid passionate love beneath the propriety.
There’s the equally British love story of the devotion Scott’s men had for him and vice versa. First person to whisper “bromance” will get a snowball in the face, one with a chunk of ice in it. This is a love from another, more innocent era, an old fashioned relationship that we seldom see these days without someone pouring dirt on it.
And then there’s the love affair Richard himself has with the snowy wastes of Antarctica and the whole ill-fated but noble expedition.
The love-affair between Adam and the spiky, unreadable Birdie Bowers (named after her distant relative) is far from romantic to me. It has levels of real pain and discomfort between the two characters; Adam falls heavily and almost instantly in love with the volatile and difficult Birdie, but it’s far from easy for them. Her obsessions come in the way, and Adam’s reticence and reluctance to be hurt again come between them again and again. It’s not comfortable to read, if you like Happy Ever After type love stories.
Nor is it comfortable to read the fictionalised narrative about Scott’s last days and the aftermath of family, colleagues and other explorers. You feel for their distress and grief, deeply.
While neither strand of narrative is comfortable, they’re so deeply compelling that you read on, oblivious of the passing of time. I read my copy on the train back from attending a book signing Richard was holding in Suffolk. Meticulously researched, the background is woven in seamlessly to such an extent that you don’t even notice you’re being subtly educated about all things Polar. There’s even a companion volume available, containing a lot of Richard’s notes and sources.
My only complaint is it is too short. I read most of it in a few hours on a train. Richard has made every word count, painting vivid pictures using spare, Impressionist brush strokes that have depth and richness.
If you are looking for a truly “cool”summer read, this will transport you back a hundred years and take you into the icy places where heroism still lives, while keeping you with one foot in the busy modern world, and the love-affairs that tie the two eras together.