Monday 31 March 2014

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

In 1913, three Antarctic explorers set off from their ship, the Kismet, to investigate an unknown island. Their voyage is beset with difficulties from the first, and once on the strange and unforgiving Everland they need to muster every ounce of resilience they have to survive. In these hostile surroundings, new alliances are made and old tensions rise to the surface, threatening to tear them apart.

As the novel opens, the geologist of the group is rescued by a search party from the Kismet
Dinners cried for the miracle of being found. He cried for not being driven out of his collapsing body and made to die alone in the cold. And he cried for Napps and Millet-Bass; for the heartbreak and the pity of what had come before. 
Fast-forward to 2012 and an international community at the Antarctic base Aegeus are watching a classic movie about the expedition.The next day, a centenary fieldwork group of three will leave to survey the island's wildlife. Although arriving by Twin Otter rather than dinghy and equipped with the latest satellite communications, their experiences begin to mirror those of the original party. There are questions over selection and at first old hand Decker supports the inexperienced Brix with more grace than their field assistant, Jess. But allegiances shift again as, through storms and set-backs, the strong must support the weak, all the while trying to hold on to their own vitality.

In the movie version of their lives, each of the men in the first expedition has their character set in stone, based on the book written by the ship's Captain Lawrence
The common-room audience were offended by any affection or respect given to that bastard Napps. They knew what to expect and hated him 
Napps, the villain of the piece, is allowed a solitary line of self-reflection
How time tricks us into seeing who we really are...and what choices we make

This moment of soul-searching becomes eerily relevant to the 2012 party, as the harshest of environments takes its toll once more. Disturbing glimpses of the original expedition are uncovered, but it is the island which seems to be the most haunting enigma of all.

When a book has two distinct threads it's easy to prefer one above the other, leading to resentment of precious reading time expended on the second, less interesting strand. One of Everland's strengths is how deftly the overlapping stories of the two expeditions are woven together, with each being equally compelling. The lichen seen by the original expedition will have grown only a millimetre when it's discovered by the centenary party. While the first endures endless night, the second group labours under the harsh ultra-violet of a sun that never sets. There are multiple points of view and reversals of fortune, but the characters remain clearly identifiable.

As we gradually uncover what has happened to Dinners, Millet-Bass and Napps, we begin to appreciate the inaccuracies of the story passed down the generations. Napps has been mercilessly revised by Captain Lawrence into a callous cat-murdering swine, prepared to be equally ruthless with fellow crew-members. Those who could have saved his reputation have their own reasons not to do so, a theme which again finds its echo in the centenary expedition.

Rebecca Hunt's debut novel Mr Chartwell, concerned the black dog of Winston Churchill's depression and was well received for its originality and visual flair.

With Everland, she has again created a distinct and challenging world, one where the human condition is subject to the harshest of scrutinies. Time becomes elastic as the island's inhabitants across two centuries are tested beyond endurance.  Perceptions are manipulated and truth disregarded and if not everything is neatly resolved, it feels fitting that Everland should retain some of its mystery. This is another absorbing and strikingly original novel from Hunt, which succeeds in questioning and entertaining in equal measure.

Thanks to Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, for my review copy.

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