When Joanna Kavenna was a little girl she dreamt of the northern icecap, a vast frozen wasteland inhabited by lonely trappers and hunters, great white bears and the ghosts of Victorian gentleman explorers. She would pitch her tent in her back garden in East Anglia, and, despite having no idea what pemmican was, would pretend to eat it. As she grew up she devoured the memoirs of Arctic explorers too, and eventually (in a poetically inspired fit of pique directed chiefly at London) gave up her nice job – her friends thought she was bonkers – and set off north into the gelid (her word) snow and ice. Her mission was to search for Thule, a lost northern land once seen by the Ancient Greek explorer Pytheas in the fourth century BC, ‘six days’ sail north of Britain’. The place has now passed into mythology – a kind of Arctic equivalent of Atlantis – and The Ice Museum is Kavenna’s account of her quest.
At this point it is worth mentioning two important things: first, despite her pretensions to being an explorer, Kavenna is a million times more comfortable with the ideal of adventure than with the reality; second, despite her impeccable academic credentials, this is not a work of historical or geographical research about polar exploration. So what have we got? Well, according to the publisher’s blurb, a blend of ‘travelogue, reportage, memoir and literary essay’ and a ‘mesmerizing story of idealism and ambition … set against the haunting backdrop of the northern landscape’. But for once it could be that a publisher has sold its writer short. This is a beautiful, clever, ambitious, funny book (if, unfortunately, quite patchy) about what it’s like to live out your obsessions on an emotional and intellectual level. Kavenna’s writing at its best is gifted; her prose (unlike the Victorian gentlemen she describes, curiously, as ‘baroque’) is charged with literary references and allusions, something akin to T S Eliot on ice. Her line ‘a fog swept across the sea, and coiled around the boat’ recalls directly ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, where the fog ‘curled once about the house, and fell asleep’.
There are some well-observed moments in The Ice Museum as Kavenna drifts around above the Arctic Circle. These tend to occur when she detaches herself from the grandiose myth of Thule, from her reworking of the tales of Anthony Trollope and William Morris, and from the biographical accounts of explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Richard Burton. (The latter she rather awkwardly refers to throughout as ‘Richard Francis Burton’, as if concerned that the reader might confuse one of the great figures of the nineteenth century, author of over eighty books on travel, with the late Welsh actor.) Kavenna is at her most entertaining when dealing with real people, in real places, in the present tense (and usually in the pub). Her encounter in Oslo with a nonagenarian mountaineering environmentalist philosopher who climbs mountains and yet won’t stand on their summits, and insists on hugging Kavenna for three seconds precisely, is laugh-aloud funny.
Later we join her in Reykjavik, where she meets up with Johannes, an Icelandic barfly and epic poet of the oral tradition who has the sagas in his blood, and a bottle of Thule beer in his hand by noon. His hands shake through either cold or nerves, Kavenna tells us, and he never composes without at least half a crate of beer inside him. He likes to ‘restrict’ his improvised poems to a mere forty-two stanzas, and to ‘jam’ in iambic pentameter while buying salmon dinners for fans capable of reciting his poems by heart – which is, given their nature, impossible. ‘There was something gently preposterous about Johannes,’ ventures the author, as if she’s just discovered the art of understatement and finds she rather likes it. In the smartly refurbished chrome-and-glass Thule Bar on Shetland, she disrupts the natural rhythm and silence of the drinkers by declaring to anyone who’ll listen that Tacitus ‘thought that Thule was in Shetland’. Apart from the fisherman who spills his drink at the news, there is no outward reaction from the embarrassed men, who you feel are mentally urging Kavenna to shut up and go away. ‘What about the Romans?’ she persists loudly. It’s straight out of Monty Python.
There are lots of examples like this, and despite the fact that Kavenna has the eye for local colour and ear for dialogue that suggest a proper travel writer, what makes The Ice Museum stick in the mind are its self-consciously literary special effects. Partly as a result, Kavenna’s prose is not always an unqualified success – there are far too many torpid seas and jaundiced streets for that. But you can forgive her these comparatively minor transgressions because of the high-risk strategy she adopts with her style, which is dangerously ambitious for a first outing, and yet solidly unpretentious. The overall effect is one of satisfying density, of a book lovingly crafted by a woman who is genuinely more at home in Thule – wherever that may be – than in London. With The Ice Museum we have for once a completely different, intelligent and literary account of a journey through the northern polar regions.