To look for your lost mother, a mother you both fear and desire to find, while sailing in the vast whitenesses of Antarctica – Jenny Diski’s new book has the gripping, dream-like logic of a fairy story. A new version of Ham Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, perhaps, with the terrifying figure of the ice-queen replacing the loved little brother at the end of the search. Even better, it’s a true story; most people prefer them to novels, these days. Reading Diski after I had just finished reviewing a novel of spectacularly baroque artifice, I savoured her clarity, the clipped, astringent truthfulness of her prose, the ice-and-lemon of her universal agnosticism. Even a certain stylistic flatness, in parts, was a pleasure, for here we were, down upon the surface of the rink, breathing the chill, believable edge of the air with her.
The true story from which she has woven Skating to Antarctica is horribly bleak. She should, by rights, be dead by now; both her parents were veritable champions in the arts of attempted suicide, desertion, unreliability and emotional blackmail. And yet she has survived, and is a successful novelist; moreover, a cheery subtext to the story is her evidently strong and loving relationship with her own daughter Chloe – who is in some ways the heroine of this book, though she must share the honours with her remarkable mother.
‘I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white: white walls, icy mirrors…’ The book begins with what sounds like a style statement, but is soon revealed to be connected to a search for a kind of safe suspension, the ‘white oblivion’