Book review: Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage

YES, the sights are wondrous in this retracing of the journey of 18th century explorer John Franklin. 

Book review: Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage

Kathleen Winter

Vintage, €12.70

Calving icebergs. Polar bears in turquoise waters.

The dancing kaleidoscope of the aurora borealis.

Franklin was seeking the north-west passage west around Greenland and the far north of Canada through largely pack ice with the ultimate goal of opening up trade routes to the far east. Winter rightly states that the appellation is a eurocentric naming.

North-west of where? Passage to where?

These are terms of a European or western mindset that ignore the perspective of indigenous populations.

And the Europeans left their names behind them too: Baffin Bay; Devon Island; Prince of Wales Island.

Far better the indigenous names such are recorded for other locations: Kangerlussauq; Ilulissat; Kugluktuk.

Winter is a Canadian novelist and declares she always wanted to undergo this mythical journey. And when an chance came up to join an expedition she grabbed it.

However, she has produced a book after a... two-week trip!

Maybe publishing has gone like this. No longer are epic adventures a la Tom Crean in the Antarctic or such as Wade Davis in the Amazon required.

What next? Heading off on the hols to Mallorca? Don’t forget to notify your publisher.

So that’s the pitch: A two-week boat trip in the wake of Franklin and his companions.

That leaves the writing: Surely some jewels shimmer among the pages?

Fraid not. The writer, trammeled inevitably by a dearth of experience, impregnates the narrative with constant reminiscences about her childhood in Newfoundland or her various marriages.

These are supposed to counterpoint the contemporary experience to which we are subjected. However, they just serve to flesh out a given passage.

We pick up the holiday, sorry adventure, on the western Greenland town of Kangerlussuaq.

The writer joins a group of scientists, birdwatchers and fellow travellers in a meandering journey northwards along the western flank of Greenland and then across Baffin Bay .

She meditates on the maleficent designs of mining companies, the indifference of governments (including her own) to the perils of global warming, and the daily struggles to survive by the proud Inuits.

She enjoys musical asides with some fellow passengers, is instructed on the geology of the surrounding topography and is confused by a profiterole.

Winter has an irritating habit of ascribing meaning to any external example of nature on which she happens to rest her gaze as if some sort of epistemological essence can be detected therein, if you just have the capacity, like her, to dig deeply enough.

The expedition finally comes across a burial ground of sorts to the Franklin expedition.

The expedition was lost to a man, and nothing of their whereabouts was ever located.

A stark memorial to their memory is genuinely moving but merits much more than a few pages.

Her daughter informs her (presumably by phone) of the word for the permanently frozen region through which she is dragging the reader like a sack of groceries behind a team of huskies — the cryosphere: from the Greek cryos meaning cold, frost or ice, and sphaira meaning globe or ball and she concocts something that would be rejected by the Eurovision: “Cry, O Sphere — weep, dear globe; lament, people, if ground this sacred should go unheard”.

Nearing the end of the trip the ship runs aground and Winter and her band are rescued by the coastguard.

Would that such a service be available to the reader.

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