Title: Ice Diaries
Author: Jean McNeil
Genre: Non-fiction (biography/memoir)
Release date: March 2016
“A decade ago, novelist and short story writer Jean McNeil spent a year as writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic Survey, and four months on the world’s most enigmatic continent — Antarctica. Access to the Antarctic remains largely reserved for scientists, and it is the only piece of earth that is nobody’s country. Ice Diaries is the story of McNeil’s years spent in ice, not only in the Antarctic but her subsequent travels to Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard, culminating in a strange event in Cape Town, South Africa, where she journeyed to make what was to be her final trip to the southernmost continent.“ (ECW Press)
Antarctica is probably my most favourite place to read about, but up to this point my reading has been largely confined to the books by/about the Antarctic explorers of the early 1900s (like Shackleton, Mawson, Scott, and Amundsen) and I was quite keen to read a contemporary take on the continent. So when I saw Jean McNeil’s Ice Diaries on NetGalley, it seemed like the perfect starting place.
Ice Diaries goes beyond McNeil’s Antarctic experience and touches on her past as well, specifically the final years of her living in Nova Scotia during her late teens. While I had a preference for the Antarctic aspect of the book, I liked reading this other part as well as it gave me a bit more of an insight to the writer herself. These moments of her teenage years appear at the end of each chapter and read almost like a fictional mystery/thriller type book – there’s a murderer, the arrival of an estranged father, and some fairly horrible family experiences in general. These parts were dark in comparison to the brightness and perpetual daylight of the Antarctic summer experienced by McNeil.
Like all stories of travellers to the Antarctic, it starts with the journey to get there. It’s much faster today than in it was in the time of the explorers, but it still, for McNeil at least, involved spending weeks on a ship to get there due to the scientific research that was undertaken en route. The writing about Antarctica was just … actually I don’t think I can put into words how it made me feel – it made my heart feel full but empty at the same time, the following quote in particular, some of which I shared a few weeks ago in a Teaser Tuesday post:
“The Antarctic is unique, even the Arctic isn’t as extreme. There is more sound, there, somehow. Even the wind sounds different. In Antarctica the wind doesn’t blow, it scours. You stand looking at the ice sheet and you can hear nothing, nothing, but the beating of your own heart.”
And reading about how much the loneliness of the continent impacted McNeil’s mental state was especially enlightening. Based on my past reading, I knew that the isolation of the place had literally driven men mad in the early days of exploration, but for some reason I assumed that this would be less likely to happen today as with modern technology, one would be able to communicate with the outside world much more easily; but you know what they say about assumption…
I liked reading both aspects of this book – the darkness of McNeil’s earlier years in contrast with the brightness of the Antarctic. But at the time of reading it was difficult for me to connect the two threads of the story – they seemed like they wanted to meet but never quite did, making the whole thing feel disconnected and like there was something missing, in turn making the book a little difficult to read at times.
On reflection, however, I can see a parallel between the two sections, namely the fact that in both McNeil’s life is disrupted and she is taken out of her comfort zone – in the first instance by the arrival of her estranged father in her teenage years, and in the second by the very fact that she left everything that she knew to go and live in one of the most isolated places on earth for four months. Along with that, she’s a complete outsider among the other residents, most of whom are scientists and who largely frown on her presence as, in the minds of many of them, she doesn’t seem to contribute anything by being there. This compounds her loneliness in the latter stages of her trip, thus impacting on her mental state; so as it turns out, even perpetual light has its dark points.
The book is a combination of personal and scientific, and pretty much what I was hoping for. I got to see a different spin on a place I love to read about and I learnt a few things – like that the “largest iceberg in recent history…was 140km long and had a surface of 7,000 sq km — roughly the size of Belgium” – and naturally there was a little in there about the impacts of global warming. It was especially interesting to have an insight of what exactly modern scientists study when they’re in Antarctica and how they do it. But most importantly I got to spend a few hundred pages imagining myself staring out over a frozen landscape that on the surface appears desolate and lifeless, but which underneath has much to offer life.