In 1871 a thwarted American expedition to the Arctic casts 19 survivors adrift on an ice floe off the coast of Greenland – one white and one black American, a Dane, a Swede, an Englishman, five Germans and two entire Inuit families. Their ordeal casts a shadow over the rest of their lives, as Heighton shows in this beautiful, accomplished and mesmerising novel. A man can travel from Alaska to Mexico, but wherever he goes, he takes his hunger and the ice in his soul with him.
Heighton employs a clever, intertextual approach to his story, mixing passages from George Tyson’s Arctic Experiences, published in 1874, with his own third-person narrative of events told from the viewpoints of one of the German seamen and the Inuit woman he is in love with. Most intriguingly, he adds excerpts from the notes on which Tyson based his book, illustrating the space which opens up between the actual and the recollected. Heighton’s notes at the end of the book on the way in which he has used the historical texts make a valuable contribution to the debate about truth and imagination in historical fiction, and the limits an author imposes on himself in making things up.
If this all sounds dry and intellectual, don’t be put off. Heighton is a poet, and the atmosphere he evokes with his prose is magical. The book is, perhaps, a little too long, but moving and absorbing. It stays with you long after you have closed it for the final time. Dog lovers beware: there is an account of a husky being slaughtered for food so moving I almost wish Heighton had let his characters starve to death instead!