On a dare, he winters with the polar bears
This winter has featured a freezer's worth of books with plots chipped out of northern ice. These range from Dan Simmons's horror/historical hybrid "The Terror" to John Taliaferro's "In a Far Country," the true story of efforts to save the crews of eight 19th-century whaling vessels trapped in Alaska.
The main difference between the sailors struggling to survive the first two books and the hero of Georgina Harding's debut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, is that Cave volunteers to spend a winter alone with the polar bears.
Finished with their grisly work for the season, the crew of the 17th-century whaling ship Heartsease begin arguing about whether it's possible for a man to survive a Greenland winter alone.
"Say what you like, any man left a winter up here would be mad by Christmas and dead by New Year's," the first mate challenges Cave. To prove his point, Cave accepts a wager worth £100 to remain behind. (Considering that his shipmates' idea of a good time is torturing a seal pup to death, his desire to absent himself from their company is understandable.)
The bet sets in motion Harding's Robinson Crusoe-like tale, but of course, Cave isn't in it for the money. As the Biscayan harpooner explains to the guilt-ridden first mate as the Heartsease sets sail, "He goes to hide himself in the ice. His instinct tells himself that of all the places in the world the ice is safest if it is man that he wants to escape, that in the ice he is out of reach."
Of course the Biscayan is correct, but his shipmates never learn the reason for Cave's desire for solitude, not even the youngest member of the crew, Thomas Goodlard, who is closest to Cave and whose reminiscences frame the novel.
Before leaving, the men load Cave up with supplies – in addition to his Bible, fiddle, and cobbler's tools – and build him a shelter.
"The room is barely ten foot square, the stove at the centre of it, the smoke drawn up through an opening in the ceiling funneled with sailcloth. It is part underground, the floor dug down through the sand to the underlying rock, and the walls above ground are thick, made from two layers of close-fitting deal planks and the cavity between them filled with sand...."
In this windowless chamber, Cave will hunker down and wait out the cold and the dark. Before the sun fades entirely, Cave, an accomplished hunter, forages for reindeer meat and grasses to ward off scurvy. During his months of solitude, he carves a barrelful of wooden heels, hunts polar bears, and records mundane details in a logbook.
He can't bring himself to play his fiddle, afraid it will remind him of his dead wife and child. But Cave might as well have indulged in a little music, since well before Christmas visions of his beloved Johanne begin to fill his days, and Cave is afraid he's going mad – just as the first mate predicted.
Quiet and cold, Harding's novel is full of precisely rendered period details and shimmering descriptions of the stark landscape.
The plot doesn't offer much in the way of suspense, but what Cave learns during his months alone makes him a bit of a legend among his crew and countrymen. The lessons of solitude are perhaps even more notable in our crowded modern world, where many people rarely turn off their TVs or iPods, for fear of being left alone with their own thoughts.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.