Dudman, Clare: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All its Dead
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Penguin © 2003, 405 pages [amazon]
Clare Dudman's first novel for adults (she published a children's book in 1995) takes the form of a series of vignettes strung bead-like from the memory of her subject, German scientist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930). If Wegener's name isn't familiar to you it's because you don't have a geologist in your life: he is the father of modern plate tectonics. Though recognized today for his contributions, Wegener was derided during his lifetime for his theory of Continental Drift--that the earth's continents are not static but are constantly moving, and that their movement over billions of years can explain various geological and biological phenomena.
But for the most part one is allowed to lose oneself in the reading, which very often means finding yourself alongside Wegener on the Greenlandic ice, behind a sledge in minus 30 or 40 or 50 degrees, the white underfoot difficult to distinguish from the white above the horizon.Channeling Wegener's voice, Dudman tells his story from childhood, through his days as a student, to adulthood, a full scientific and personal life that included the deaths of siblings, military service, marriage and children, repeated expeditions to the frozen reaches of Greenland, and ridicule at the hands of his scientific peers. Occasionally the older Wegener, the man telling the story, interjects to remark on his youthful pomposity, say, or to hint at future events. But for the most part one is allowed to lose oneself in the reading, which very often means finding yourself alongside Wegener on the Greenlandic ice, behind a sledge in minus 30 or 40 or 50 degrees, the white underfoot difficult to distinguish from the white above the horizon:
"I look no farther than the pony's hindquarters. To look any farther would be to see the bank of snow, appearing almost vertically in front of me. I don't want to see. I don't want to know. If I can just travel as far as the pony, if I can just do that. I look no farther. I celebrate each one of these small victories in silence, and then go on again. Sometimes I tell myself that when I reach that point just a little ahead of me we will stop and rest, or stop and make camp. But we don't. ... There is just more and more snow, more and more ice, and the only thing that changes is that sometimes it is deeper, sometimes softer, sometimes breaks away in pieces, and sometimes groans a little under foot or crunches. But it is all just snow. Or ice. Part of a slope that doesn't seem to end, just goes on and on, until my clothes are wet with effort."When you walk away from this book what you're sure to take with you are Dudman's descriptions of ice, its different textures and temperatures and colors, rendered so vividly on the page you can almost feel its cold.
One Day the Ice Will Reveal All its Dead is not a straightforward account of a man, nor quite like anything I've read before. Often Dudman approaches the episodes of Wegener's life that she has elected to include obliquely, from some wholly unexpected angle. Here, for example, is Wegener during his days as an astronomy student at the University of Berlin, adding his corrections to the Alfonsine astronomical tables:
"It is a printed copy I hold now, a late edition, the famous Parisian one of 1545. The paper is cream, thick, wizened with age, and the printing is imperfect--some of the curved Latin letters have bled a little from their moulded fonts--for this is a new art, not yet properly mastered. The owners of these tables have made notes, and with time the ink has become a gentle sepia, unobtrusive, part of the book. I too am adding parts of myself to the pages: oils are leaking from the skin of my hands and molecules of fat are smearing themselves invisibly on its surface. Part of the book is also becoming part of me: some of the ink is leaching minutely from the paper and into my pores, and some of the grains of the paper are detaching themselves, floating into the air and being drawn irretrievably into my lungs. In these small ways we are blending together, the wizard and his book of spells."It is of course always true to say that no two writers will get across the same piece of information in precisely the same way, but given an infinite number of writers instructed to describe Wegener at his astronomical computations, I can't imagine any producing a picture remotely like the one Dudman paints here.
My complaints about the book are few, and almost entirely unrelated to the writing itself. I found Dudman's final chapters slightly confusing, those in which she details Wegener's last, fatal expedition to Greenland. The explorer's movements might have been easier to follow, however, if a series of maps tracing Wegener's expeditions had been included in the book. I would also have appreciated the addition of a timeline and photographs. Perhaps these can be included in future editions.
Dudman has managed to blend the various aspects of Wegener the man--the scientist and explorer, sibling and son and husband and father--into a book that is equal parts science and poetry. The result is a startling accomplishment, and well worth the read.
[Disclaimer: I have come to know the author of One Day the Ice Will Reveal All its Dead virtually, through our respective blogs and by email. I hope that our acquaintance has not influenced my review of her book.]
Review summary: Clare Dudman's first novel for adults takes the form of a series of vignettes strung bead-like from the memory of her subject, German scientist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), whose theory of Continental Drift was derided during his lifetime. Dudman has managed to blend the various aspects of Wegener the man--the scientist and explorer, sibling and son and husband and father--into a book that is equal parts science and poetry. The result is a startling accomplishment, and well worth the read.