EVERYTHING is very plain and modern now,” a dying man tells the author Jack London roughly halfway through Minds of Winter, warning the writer against the gothic, supernatural excesses of the yarn he is spinning in a hospital ward.
The reader may well laugh out loud; Ed O’Loughlin’s fourth novel is an uncompromising throwback to a time when story was king, a spellbinding tale of adventures and explorers, spies and outlaws, of derring-do, self-sacrifice and impossible feats of endurance.
The story opens with a Prologue provided by a feature published by journalist Maev Kennedy in The Guardian in 2009, in which Kennedy writes about the mystery of how a ‘chronometer which was supposed to have sunk with a ship on the Franklin North-West Passage expedition in 1845 … somehow ended up back in London as a carriage clock.’
The novel then moves forward to the present day, introducing Fay and Nelson, who are 120 miles inside the Canadian Arctic Circle.
Strangers to one another, both are searching — although they don’t know it yet — for the elusive chronometer.
Another chapter, another leap through time and space: we find ourselves in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841, as Sir John Franklin prepares to host a ball on board his ship The Erebus, the ship fated to be lost four years later in the vain search for the North-West Passage.
And on the novel goes, gambolling forward and back in time, a Russian doll of a novel in which stories fold into one another, leading on deeper into the mystery via Roald Amundsen’s search for the South Pole, Abwehr spies during WWII and Jack London’s adventures as a spy on the Korea-Manchuria border, all of it underpinned by O’Loughlin’s musings on the direction man might take once the tools of discovery — maps, compasses, chronometers — have fulfilled their promise and charted all there is to be known.
“A globe was a globe and you could not fall off it,” observes Morgan, a cartographer.
“But a map was a map, a metaphor, full of judgements and choices and victories and regrets; a map was built on hacks and heuristics and mistakes and lies, cracks through which you might, just maybe, someday slip away.”
It’s a theme O’Loughlin returns to frequently, such as when Amundsen, on the island of Madeira and undecided as to whether to strike out for the North or South Pole, pauses before making his final decision: “He could stay here forever, dissolved in this air. But some tiny flaw in the fabric of the universe, some original sin in space and time, determined that he was doomed to exist, to be one thing or another.”
It’s a beautifully written novel that blends a kind of pragmatic poetry with a lyrical interpretation of science — the Greenwich observatory, for example, is “a shrine … where time was substantiated from the sky and consecrated in chronometers, then served to the ships that passed down the reach.”
O’Loughlin, whose debut novel Not Untrue & Not Unkind was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009, can knock out a well-turned line with the best of them, even when he is sabotaging his characters’ philosophical musings with a mischievous sense of humour.
It’s hard to believe, for example, that the metaphor of the search for the missing chronometer, which relentlessly measures the fictional concept of linear time, is anything more than an old- fashioned McGuffin, given the swirling ebb-and- flow nature of the narrative.
That said, there’s no doubt that Minds of Winter is a serious novel on an important theme. What makes it such an absorbing read is that O’Loughlin doesn’t believe that ‘serious’ and ‘entertaining’ are mutually exclusive concepts.
In the sheer brio of its storytelling, it brings to mind Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — profound, yes, but terrific fun, too.
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