Life on the ice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am


by Steven Heighton

Hamish Hamilton, $195

Afterlands is an epic retelling of a 19th-century polar expedition that went wrong. Yet that does little to convey what is a triumph of a novel. This is a masterful blend of real-life, historical account (most notably, a book written by expedition leader Captain George Tyson) with a modern storyteller's eye. The characters who disappear from the pages of history are taken up once more by Steven Heighton's imagination.

The story opens in 1876 with the death of a child prodigy - an Inuit girl, who is a genius violinist - feted by polite society in post-civil war Connecticut. Two men, one unwelcome, return from their separate, wandering lives for the funeral, where they encounter the girl's adopted mother, the Anglicised esquimau Tukulito.

There, we are greeted with tantalising glimpses of the aftermath of a failed expedition: disgrace for Roland Kruger, the individualist, educated Prussian seaman, blamed as a troublemaker during the doomed Polaris expedition; the lecture circuit and heroic reward for Lieutenant (later Captain) George Tyson, in whose account the expedition is contained.

Both men share a passion for the Inuit woman, married to one of their native guides. And yet, as the story rolls backwards in time, we learn to see heroes as villains, and villains as heroes.

Trapped on the ice, 19 whalers and seamen of all nationalities, plus their Inuit guides and families, survive for months without provisions on a shrinking floe. As storms lash them, polar bears attack, hunger gnaws, mutiny strikes and cannibalism threatens, the expedition, stranded when fleeing their leaking ship, splits into two camps. On the one side are the Americans, with the Stars & Stripes fluttering above their snow hut. On the other, the Germans, led at first by the self-appointed Count Meyer, a meteorologist, clearly descending into madness, and then by his scheming lieutenant, Anthing.

There's the whiff of the new German empire about them, of the Kaiser's dreams and the emerging nationalism of the German people, which would later erupt into the first world war. As events descend, Kruger maintains a watchful silence, the taciturn wanderer, in search of nationality and home. It is Kruger who, in Afterlands, notices Tyson's liking for drink. It's Kruger, too, who saves Tukulito from rape, and who, in turn, is viewed as a traitor by his own side - yet distrusted also by Tyson.

This savage, beautiful tale continues long after the ice and rescue, into the Mexican revolution and even death and reconciliation. Through it all, Heighton's prose shines: faces 'cave in to their eyes' after months on the ice; the drifting ice 'rests on the meeting line of the White God and the darker, hidden gods of her people'.

It's a tale to be savoured, packed with sumptuous language, sweeping vistas, contained fury, sorrow and unrequited love.