"At a quarter past three in the afternoon, on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse." So begins Thomas Wharton's first novel, Icefields
, and as Byrne hangs trapped, upside down, he sees the figure of an angel, similarly suspended in translucent ice suffused with sunlight, that will forever haunt and inspire him. This figure, elusive and emotionally charged, is the symbolic heart of the novel, evoking the blend of science and mysticism that fuelled Canadian wilderness exploration at the turn of the 20th century.
Icefields is set in Jasper, Alberta, whose name was possibly derived, Byrne speculates, "from the French phrase j'espère: I hope," though "on one old map the region is labelled Despair." The great glacier raises both spirits, despair and hope, in the diverse cast of characters assembled at its foot, who see in its cold mystery the fulfillment of their various desires for money, inspiration, adventure, and knowledge. Through their interlocking stories, Wharton unearths the quest for self-discovery at the core of the colonial enterprise. These stories are paralleled by the explorations of the fictional English traveller Lord Sexsmith, who, a generation earlier, dreams of shooting a grizzly on the mountain, cutting it open, and feeling "the hot sensual heart sliding into his palm." Based on historical records of the area's exploration, this novel, in the spirit of Robert Kroetsch's Badlands, is an absorbing and impressionistic companion to nonfiction adventure narratives. As Byrne demonstrates, the soul-searching wonder the wilderness inspires remains, even as its sublime beauties are translated into tourist dollars. "Come with me," he beckons in the novel's last lines. "I want to show you something rather extraordinary." --Karen Solie
From Publishers Weekly
This first novel by Canadian Wharton, borrows something of the mystery and icy obsessiveness of Peter HYeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, the bleak hallucinatory vision of William Vollman's The Ice Shirt and a cast of haunted characters reminiscent of Josephine Hart's Damage. The result is a bit of a pastiche of styles and subjects of recent popular books (there's even evidence of an angel). But Wharton is a competent writer and this is likely to be strong on sales, even if it's not long on inventiveness. In 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne leaves England for an expedition to the Arcturus glacier. A fall into a crevasse hints at the magic of the glacier, and his subsequent convalescence in the "town" of Jasper clinches it. Byrne becomes increasingly tied to the glacier, not only bivouacking on a nunatak or rognon but obsessively describing it and studying it. As one Jasper resident says of his work on glaciers, "I thought he was the one man on earth who bothered that much with them, that this science was his alone, that he had invented it. Arcturology. The science of being distant, and receding a little every year." As the glacier recedes, it reveals new objects, some transformed beyond recognition by its passing. Time does the same thing for characters in the story, absorbing some only to spit them up later in another form, dragging others under forever. Wharton has a fine sense of description, dialogue that is as spare as the landscape and a subtle hand with narrative. But underlying it all is an old-world sense of awe (think Burke, Byron, Shelley) that allows this spare novel to transcend its limitations.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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