Mythic account of a man transformed by a year spent alone in the Arctic.
British writer Harding’s U.S. debut is a brief, spare historical parable of personal endurance and enlightenment, set in a bleak Eden. Cave, a self-contained, experienced sailor aboard a 1616 whaling vessel bound for Greenland, is challenged by the aggressive ship’s mate to stay behind at the whaling station. He accepts the bet and watches the ship leave. A gifted hunter, he makes preparations for the long, dark, winter months to come by preserving reindeer meat for food and gathering and drying grasses to eat to ward off scurvy. He has a fiddle with him but resists playing, fearing the music will unleash memories of his Danish wife Johanne, who died with their baby after five terrible days in labor. Cave, nonetheless, experiences hallucinations. He also kills polar bears, keeps a log, survives food poisoning and, later, a bad fall. In the spring the animals return in abundance, and he takes particular comfort in the seals, who sport human expressions. When the ship returns, the sailors find Cave alive but very thin and otherworldly, seemingly possessed of the power to soothe troubled minds. Returning to England, he becomes a figure of legend. Some suspect him of witchcraft, but Cave knows better: His year of solitude has taught him that “there are no devils out there. No devils in the ice or the snow or the rocks, none but those inside us, those we bring.” His visionary pronouncements presage not only psychology but also the ecological disaster to come.
The heavy concluding message slightly spoils an otherwise carefully told tale of reason versus superstition and imminent earthly despoliation.