White – Marie Darrieussecq

She has a mug of steaming tea in her hands, the air is mild on the Antarctic coat, among the animals; she raises her face to the sun and is happy to be here, she mimics the penguins, laughing as she waddles. We ghosts surround her, envelop her, and if we could, we would caress her.

cover

In 2015, Edmeé Blanco finds herself in the Antarctic, a member of the first permanent European base to be established there.  Put simply, this short novel is about a man and a woman whose lives collide at the bottom of the earth. Edmeé meets the Icelandic engineer Pete Tomson. They both come to Antarctica for different and deeply personal reasons. Running away from the real world, their lives briefly intersect in Antarctica and they find themselves changed forever. The book explores the back stories of the two main characters, and reveals a little bit about why they would want to be at the farthest end of the earth. Physically isolated for months at a time, their only contact with the outside world is a holographic video phone.

Antarctica

Photo by Christopher Michel / BY-NC

I loved the end of this book. I spent three-quarters of it wondering when something was going to happen, but it all came together wonderfully at the end.

It takes place in an alternate near-future. In Edmeé’s world, they have holographic communications technology, and there is a small subplot about a manned mission to Mars that is taking place at the same time as their trip to the South Pole. Edmeé draws some parallels between her journey to the ends of the earth and the astronauts journey to a different planet.

Panoramic image of HMS Protector, in the vast and beautiful landscape of Antarctica.

© Crown Copyright 2013 Photographer: LA(Phot) Vicki Benwell Image 45156394.jpg from http://www.defenceimages.mod.uk

But most interestingly, the book is narrated by ghosts. Millions of ghosts whizz around the characters, insatiably curious about the crew of the base, these living humans who would come to live in a few prefabricated huts at minus 40 degrees Celsius. The ghosts of Scott and Amundsen make an appearance, those brave souls who traversed the Antarctic ice sheets a century before. During the cold winter season, the humans depart back to warmer climes and the ghosts are left along to haunt the empty tankers and huts, waiting for the living to make their seasonal appearance.

We surround the tanker and watch it emptying, with a sucking noise from the pump. This is the sole event at this point on the globe. Tanker full/tanker empty: the passage of time, a few snowflakes here and there. The convoy of Caterpillars once a year. The sun setting in splendour for nobody. And it is night for six months. Then the sun rises, dawn lasts for weeks, pink, green, yellow, and in its final gleams, the first plane lands with four or five humans. And there we are. Six months of summer.

Darrieussecq’s writing does a good job of evoking the cold, sparse beauty of the Antartctic continent.

Further Information

In actual fact, there already is a permanent manned base at the South Pole. Known as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, it is the southern-most permanently-inhabited place on Earth. The summertime population apparently hovers already the 200 mark.

At certain times depending on the weather, you can view images from a South Pole webcam.

Most interesting on all, you can read accounts of life in Antarctica written by two men who have lived and worked there, Robert Schwarz and Jeffrey Donenfeld.

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