I read this book ages ago, and have been meaning to write glowingly about it for months. And having just finished a brasher, noisier book (which I will also review shortly) I remembered that this was first in my mental queue.
I thought that, after Moby Dick, that no writer could dare to imagine, let alone tell, another story about the days of the whalers. But Georgina Harding does it beautifully and simply, with the pared-down clarity of allegory and poetry.
The story is simple and haunting. Near the end of a whaling mission, the crew of the Heartsease are about to sail home after a season of loading up with whale meat and oil in the icy seas near Greenland. An argument escalates among them, and Thomas Cave a bets one of his crewmen £100 that he can survive a winter of solitude on an uninhabited island.
The story opens with the scene of Cave’s body receding into the distance as the boat sails away. From there the story unfolds, taking us back into the whaling voyage that drove Cave into the wager, forwards through his lone struggle to survive, and further back into his personal past, where we encounter the grief and loss that has driven him to this journey of extreme solitude.
However, what begins as an apparently simple story becomes an allegory of great weight. The ending hits with more force than you might expect for a slim, unassuming little story about one man’s winter in the cold. It is beautiful and well worth reading.