Set in 1660, Georgina Harding’s debut novel is the story of Thomas Cave who, on a bet, spends a winter alone in the Arctic. The barren harshness of the Arctic winter provides a blank—well, white—canvas upon which the character of Thomas Cave is painted.
Thomas Cave’s story is bookended by the first-person accounts of Thomas Goodlard. The technique of using a relatively minor character to contextualise the main narrative is not unusual, but I particularly like the relationship between the two. Despite being quite close to Cave around the time of the adventure, Goodlard is never really told what Cave went through that winter, and his incomplete understanding creates tension.
Goodlard’s first-person account is contrasted with the omniscient narrator which tells Cave’s story. Goodlard belongs firmly to the world of men, a world based around the ‘I.’ Cave stands aloof from men—even before his voluntary isolation, but particularly after it. (And through it, obviously.) The novel is a parable demonstrating the divisions between Man and Nature, Man and God, even Man and Himself. It is the latter of this triumvirate that renders a first-person narrative ineffectual for Cave’s story. Yet it is this separation of Man from Himself that allows Cave to reconcile the first two divisions. In contrast, Goodlard is never not completely himself, and that keeps him from understanding Cave’s revelations about Nature and God.
While there is tension between the two character’s narratives, and between the concurrent narratives of Cave’s survival and remembrance, Cave’s new understandings of God and Nature are driven by the contrast between the summer and winter of the Arctic—a contrast that Cave is the only person to endure.
The once pristine area is stained by human activity and atrocity. But once Thomas Cave is left behind, all the masks of humanity, all the incidentals of existence are stripped away, leaving survival and memory—humanity in its purest state. The landscape, for all its fierceness and complete indifference to mankind during the winter months, retains the signs of human vandalism as the damage done in previous summers returns after winter: the grease, the blood stains, the skeletal remains.
Thomas Cave’s voluntary solitude, completely removed from the world of Man, reveals to Cave that Nature has its own, rightful, existence. By attempting to prove that man is indomitable and can conquer nature, Cave realises that man is not the master of nature, but its dependent.
Georgina Harding’s first novel is a solid, enjoyable effort but ultimately unfulfilling. The amount of time spent on the psychological troubles of Thomas Cave is not justified by the results. Haunted by loss, Cave is neither psychologically complicated, nor redeemed by his flagellation: “’If there was one thing I learnt in the North, Tom Goodlard, it was this: that there are no devils out there. No devils in the ice or the snow or the rocks, none but those inside us, those we bring.’”