The Solitude of Thomas Cave
Set in the first half of the 17th century, this is a poetic and highly literate novel that has as its themes the nature of mankind and our impact on the environment. Thomas Cave is a whaler on Arctic expeditions collecting whale oil and associated products, which in the early 1600s was a highly hazardous though lucrative occupation. Cave accepts a wager that he would be able to survive an Arctic winter alone and is left behind by his ship with provisions and shelter as the summer conditions begin to give way to the icy temperatures of winter.
The long months of utter isolation and privation are recorded in his journal and by the author as narrator. As the reader soon grasps, there are reasons apart from monetary gain why Cave has taken up the challenge. He is a bereaved widower and seeks out silence and loneliness to be with his grief and despair. Cave reflects on his brief marriage to Johanne and her death in childbirth. In his privations he hallucinates and feels haunted by his dead wife and child.
The novel is not primarily plot driven, so nothing is given away by revealing that Cave survives the long, desperately hard winter: but he is a changed man. The young ship hand, Thomas Goodlard, records his friendship with Cave both before and after the latter’s experience and, many years later, he seeks out Cave as an old man.
Thomas Cave developed an innate empathy with the fauna of the Arctic and regrets mankind’s vicious depredation to extract profit and ruin their teeming environment. It is a message for the modern world with the fast disappearance of species and man’s increasingly clumsy and destructive footprints on the world. It is also a wonderfully delicate novel, not one to be rushed but savoured and reflected upon.