Minds of Winter
The enticing jacket synopsis: 1845, John Franklin’s expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage results in the disappearance of all hands and both ships. In 2009, a chronometer from that expedition mysteriously reappears in London. These are historical facts. Yet this book experiences a kind of (snow) blindness to the dramatic potential of that enigma. Instead, it’s a disjointed homage to polar exploration (both poles), with various point-of-view digressions (a 41-page shipboard ball focusing on Franklin’s… niece commences the tale; this Austen-esque episode is the only glimpse you’ll get of him). All resides within the contemporary fictional framework of a couple’s implausible meeting in Canada’s Northwest Territories, revealing they’re “inextricably linked” to individuals who include (but are by no means limited to): Franklin, Ross, Crozier, Bellot, Hall, Amundsen, Meares, et al. This book is all over the map, literally and figuratively.
Disclaimer: my opinion will doubtless be in the minority; this novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and the literati have been darn near effusive. I was excited, planned to buy before serendipity and the review list brought us together. It certainly has its moments of brilliance, but they’re precisely that—moments, stuck in a muddled quagmire that comes to a very dissatisfying conclusion (if one can call it that). The moments of brilliance: O’Loughlin’s ability to quantify the magnetism of Arctic exploration, the mentality of those who heed its icy siren song, and his amusing play with literary styles/tastes through such inclusions as Jack London (yep, he’s here, too) relating a short story. O’Loughlin’s research into the historical personages in this book is obvious, just as it’s obvious that his need to include too much of that research shatters focus, hampers momentum, and should’ve been edited. This novel is overly ambitious, yet unable to realize those ambitions, even in 500 pages.