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The Solitude of Thomas Cave
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The Solitude of Thomas Cave (Paperback)

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August, 1616. The whaling ship Heartsease has ventured high into the Arctic, but now must begin the long journey home. Only one man stays behind: Thomas Cave makes a wager to remain here, alone, until the next season. No man has yet been known to survive a winter this far north. As the light recedes and the ice begins to close in, Cave pits himself against blizzards, avalanches, bears - and his own demons. For in this wilderness that is without human history his past returns to him: the woman he had loved, the grief that drove him to the ice.

Fiction & PoetryModern & contemporary fiction post c 1945 Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC Publication Date: 15/03/2010 ISBN-13: 9780747599746  Details: Type: Paperback Format: Books
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Georgina Harding is the author of two works of non-fiction: Tranquebar: A Season in South India and In Another Europe. This is her first novel. She lives in London and Colchester, Essex.

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Staff Choice

It was a season spent in Tranquebar in Southern India that first set Georgina Harding to thinking about life in the Arctic Circle, a psychological antidote to the stifling heat. Some years later it is through Thomas Cave, aboard the whaling ship Heartsease in the early part of the seventeenth century, that she has chosen to live out the notion. Sitting round the campfire on the island of Svalbard after a day skinning seals, one of the crew tells a tall tale of a Dutch crew stranded by the ice and forced to spend winter beneath the upturned hull of their rowing boat. As the story goes, one survived until the thaw. The crew take as drunken machismo Thomas Cave’s wager that, left in their makeshift shelter, he might do the same. But in the stark and sober light of morning, Cave remains resolute. Cabin boy Thomas Goodlard, watching the figure of Cave fade against the shore, reflects that he shall never see this staunchly noble man again.

It is the nature of night-time, with its still darkness, to bring about restless introspection; a dark night of the soul always ends with the dawn, a symbol of optimism where none other may be justified. As daytime dwindles to nothing, Cave busies himself with hunting down provisions, so that he might sit alone through the darkest, longest night of all, the penumbral gloom of an Arctic winter. The Viking legends of the aurora borealis, whose magnetic origins were not to be deciphered for another three hundred years, explain those fizzing, dancing lights as the souls of warriors travelling to Valhalla. And Cave finds that it is the spirits of the dead which will intrude upon his solitude.

For a modern readership, acquainted with satellite phones and artificial fleeces, it can be difficult to comprehend the inadequacy of a man in sealskins tending a log fire to protect him from the harshness of such a climate. Harding, perhaps aware of this, conjures Cave’s isolation from that diminished bubble of heat and light into which he retreats when the sharp-peaked mountains are lost to perpetual night. For all the novel’s intimacy with how he spends these sunless days and of the visions to which he submits, the stoic Cave remains enigmatic. His journal entries are brief and bluff, as he remains resolute in self-imposed penance.

This opacity of character is what draws the cabin boy to him and makes the denouement of Cave’s fate so fascinating. He could easily be one of Patrick McGrath’s grotesques or a stolid protagonist from any novel by Jim Crace. Or you could swap the Arctic for the Australian outback and imagine Tim Winton as the author. A book so simply yet extraordinarily evocative sends shivers down the spine, both in psychosomatic sympathy for Cave and in wonder at a novel so consummately realised. And Cave is a character both unique and identifiably, frailly human.

Jonathan, Web Editor

Charing Cross Rd Bookshop - 05/11/2012


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