It is 1913, and a British expedition to Antarctica runs into disaster. Three members of the crew — Napps, a natural if overbearing leader; Millet-Bass, a physically imposing veteran of sea and ice; and Dinners, a young man inexperienced in everything to do with exploration life and the Antarctic — set out in a dinghy from the mother ship, Kismet, to explore the island they have named Everland in homage to their patron, Joseph Evelyn. But a storm arises as the men depart and when eventually they wash ashore their task is no longer exploration but survival. Echoes of Captain Scott’s disastrous Antarctic expedition ring through the story of the fictitious Kismet, but are never overplayed, and the Kismet’s venture slips plausibly among the other known sagas of this so-called Heroic Age of exploration.
A hundred years later, a second expedition comes to Everland to conduct an array of scientific studies. The tragedy of the Kismet is well-known — legendary, in fact — to the modern, well-equipped, multinational team working from the Antarctic base called Aegeus, “a stark industrial hamlet of featureless buildings” that houses 150 scientists and staff members. This first comprehensive survey of Everland is a prestigious venture, and while its sole purpose is hard science, the centenary of the Kismet episode adds luster, so virtually everyone at Aegeus has competed for selection. Three people are chosen for what will be a two-month venture: Decker, a seasoned field scientist; Jess, a tough, self-sufficient and multiskilled field assistant; and Brix, an academic whose inexperience and propensity for tears contribute to her teammates’ view that her “selection for the Everland team was an inexplicable mistake.”
Switching back and forth between the centuries, Rebecca Hunt unfolds these parallel stories with great verve. Her careful control of the narratives and dramatic pacing keeps the tension in each story steadily escalating. She conjures the Antarctic convincingly not only in terms of the colors, shapes and textures of the place and its wildlife but also in its vastness and implacable indifference to human life and the passage of time. The Aegeus team doggedly tags and microchips the continent’s penguins and seals, but these pinpricks of data can never quantify the vast, almost malevolent power of nature they confront.
The successful evocation of Everland’s timelessness allows each of the two stories to step believably in the footsteps of the other. It is natural that the two teams remark on the same unchanging features and phenomena, like a thousand-year-old growth of lichen. Of course they would share the experience of cold and daily hardships despite great differences in equipment; and of course, in a place so unforgiving of error, they would soon face similar calamity. Basic facts of human nature don’t change much either, and the tension in — and between — the two stories lies in the exposure of the six characters.
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That the same voice should narrate both stories in this novel seems essential. But although Hunt’s wry, sometimes casual authorial style is well-suited to the modern drama, it feels jarring when applied to the earlier expedition. “Napps made it unbelievably clear how little he cared,” for example, has an unmistakably 21st-century twang.
This said, “Everland” unfolds two suspenseful dramas that confront profound themes. With a mere shake of the land or fall of boulders, the Antarctic can bury human lives, together with their stories. Yet in doing so, it reveals the true character of each person, buried within.
By Rebecca Hunt
317 pp. Europa Editions. Paper, $17.
Caroline Alexander is the author of “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.” Her translation of the “Iliad” will be published this month.