This week’s book is a relative ‘oldie’; the edition I have was published in 2005. However, I’ve chosen to review it because I am currently completely obsessed with the Polar regions, and also because Geraldine McCaughrean’s ‘The White Darkness’ was one of those books which made me really, truly want to be a writer.
I mean, I’d always wanted to be a writer. But this book, along with several others, opened my eyes to how imaginative a novel can be, and how emotionally affecting. Geraldine McCaughrean is a legend, of course, who has written more books than most people have read, and I’ll never be on a par with her, but still. Her way with words, and her ability to tell a story, are a huge inspiration.
The first cool thing about ‘The White Darkness’ is this: the main character, Symone, is hearing impaired, but it doesn’t hold her back from having the adventure of a lifetime. The second cool thing is this: she gets to travel to the South Pole as part of the story. But the third, and coolest, thing about this story is: it features Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. In case you don’t know who that is, I’ll tell you – Captain Oates was the famous explorer who is credited with saying ‘I am just going outside. I may be some time,’ on the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Captain Scott. The men were lost, starving, and dying of exposure, and Captain Oates felt he was holding them back, so he walked out into a blizzard in order to try to save their lives by forcing them to go on without him.
Tragically, of course, his sacrifice was in vain, because all the explorers perished anyway. His famous last words live on only in Scott’s journal. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an extremely brave thing to do, though, and it has gone down in history as an act of heroism.
In case you haven’t guessed already, I have a ‘thing’ for Polar exploration, and the story of Captain Oates has always interested me. Geraldine McCaughrean takes the character of Captain Oates – because the way he appears in this book, he is a ‘character’; it’s not the ‘real’ Captain Oates – and weaves him into the life of a modern teenager. Symone, you see, is in love with Captain Oates, and has been for years.
I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way – in ninety years I’ll be dead, too, and then the age difference won’t matter. (Page 1)
Captain Oates – or, at the very least, an imagining of him – lives in Sym’s head. They talk to one another, and he keeps her company through some very challenging life events. He is her source of comfort and support, her advisor and her guide. She has lost her father and is under the influence of the decidedly weird ‘Uncle’ Victor, who is a family friend and not a blood relative. The story begins when Victor decides that Sym and her mother are coming with him on a trip to Paris. However, as they prepare to leave, Sym’s mother realises her passport is missing. That leaves Sym, and Uncle Victor, alone. And it isn’t Paris he wants to bring her to, either – it’s the South Pole.
So why does it emerge that Uncle Victor has hidden Sym’s mother’s passport? Why does he want Sym – and Sym alone – to join him in what turns out to be less of an exploration than a quest? Uncle Victor is looking for something, something he truly believes exists at the South Pole, and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone and anything, including Sym, to get to it.
In Antarctica, Sym’s relationship with her uncle begins to unravel, but – worse still – her connection to Oates begins to disappear, too. He doesn’t want to return to Antarctica, the place where he ‘died’; the trip causes him huge grief. It places a massive strain on their connection, the most treasured thing that Sym possesses. I love the way McCaughrean handles this plot device, because it’s clear that Sym knows Titus isn’t real – she knows he’s dead, and that the voice she hears in her mind isn’t really his. And yet she loves him, and she needs him, and there are hints dropped all over the place that there’s more to Titus’ voice than just Sym’s imagination. All in all, it’s a heartrending and emotional relationship and (speaking as a person who was slightly obsessed with W.B. Yeats as a teenager, despite the fact that he was quite dead at the time), one I could entirely understand and get on board with. Not only did it highlight Sym’s isolation and loneliness, but it also spoke of her loss – the loss of her father, the lack of a significant male presence in her life, and her desire for a love relationship which goes hand-in-hand with her fear of it – and, besides all that, the voice of Captain Oates is marvellous. Full of plummy English public-schoolboyness, it’s a voice I loved reading.
At the book’s conclusion, Captain Oates’ voice is the most real thing about the situation Sym finds herself in. When at her weakest, and near death, Oates is all she has. It’s truly a remarkable thing to read. It made me weep the first time I read this book, and the second, and the third…
I have never read anything quite like ‘The White Darkness.’ Sym’s voice is a strange one for a fourteen-year-old, admittedly: it’s a little too adult, in places, and perhaps a little too knowing. But perhaps that’s to be expected when the character is bookish, shy, socially isolated, lacking in friends, and obsessed with a long-dead man. She’s apart from her peers, and it shows in everything she says and does. I loved her, and I loved the way McCaughrean writes about her, and I loved her version of Oates.
‘The White Darkness’ is an odd and different little book, but it’s one I love. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think of it. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll check it out and let me know whether you liked it.