‘Into White Silence’ is supposedly a historical novel based around the story of an Antarctic voyage by the Polar vessel, Raven, in 1922. The Raven is to go on an expedition, the aim of which is to map and explore parts of the Antarctic continent that are still unknown in 1922. This book features excerpts from the diary of Lieutenant William Downes, one of the leaders of the expedition. These diary portions are interspersed with comments from the narrator of the story.
From the very beginning, there is a sense of foreboding about this expedition. Most of this is initially because of the personality of the leader of the expedition, Edward Bourke. He appears to be volatile, mysterious and unreliable. He gathers around him a motley crew of men; some appear admirable, but some have dubious pasts and scant qualifications for a journey, which in its day was highly dangerous. Much is made of the fact that explorers on similar trips had died and the expeditions ended in disaster.
Into this highly charged atmosphere comes our protagonist William Downes; a man of courage and loyalty, who is a highly decorated war hero. His story is told as the voice of reason and moral rectitude. Downes also has a sense of foreboding about the expedition, which he tries to suppress, as he is given a tour of the vessel Raven as it waits in the port of Hobart. The Raven, like its name, is black and unwieldy. It sits low in the water like a malevolent beast, with none of the lightness and elegance of the ships around it.
As the story develops, our perceptions change about the expedition, the protagonist and the narrator. We realise that this is not a story from history at all, but a construct of the narrator. The narrator is perceived as increasingly unreliable and morally ambiguous. Even our hero is seen as somewhat less worthy than we thought. We begin to see him as so obtuse and lacking in flexibility and imagination, that his observations become unreliable also. The story becomes more and more disturbing and uncomfortable as the expedition descends into disaster.
Comparisons with Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ are clear, where the ship’s journey into the heart of Africa becomes a journey into hell. As the vessel gets closer and closer to Antarctica, things become blacker and more terrible. Men begin to die or get murdered. The expedition leader, Rourke, descends into madness, dragging everyone on the ship with him. References to another great and terrible sea journey, Moby Dick, with the famous Captain Ahab, are obvious. Finally, the Raven becomes hopelessly stuck in the ice of Antarctica and the ship turns into a floating coffin.
It is problematic deciding the audience for this book. The writing is somewhat slow-moving and ponderous. The action takes a very long time to get going, and can be dry reading. I sense that most young adult readers would not persist with it, and adults will find it a strange and unsettling read.
However, this said, it remains in the mind long after it is read, and brings to life the cold and forbidding world of Antarctica.
(Review by Jane Crew)