The Solitude of Thomas Cave
by Georgina Harding
This is a terrific first novel. The year is 1616 and the whaling ship Heartsease makes a voyage to the uncharted waters of the Arctic.
As they pack up their gear to set off before the sea freezes in on them, one of the crew, reflecting on the isolation of the place, relates an anecdote about a ship that became icebound here and how one crewmember survived to tell the tale. Naturally the others scoff at the improbability of this except for one, Thomas Cave, who reckons he could survive until the following spring when the Heartsease returns for the next whaling. And so a wager is made.
The men leave him reluctantly, providing him with enough ship's biscuits, dried fruit and wine to last until May and the Heartsease sets sail, leaving Cave behind. As he settles in to his new 10ft square home with just a stove, a bed covered in reindeer skins, a Bible and his violin to keep him company, it becomes clear that there is more than pride at stake in his wager.
Thomas starts a journal (a practical thing that he promised to keep for the Captain) but painful memories start to invade his thoughts and we learn about Johanne, his wife for too brief a time, for whom he still grieves. Itís these memories and visions of Johanne that keep Thomas going - but that also, at times, push him to the brink of madness.
Thomas also reflects on the reason for the men being there and the horror of the mass slaughter, "In its cold way, it was a paradise... And then we came with our killing and saw devils there." Indeed, the descriptions of the slaughter are horrific and the ecological message is subtly dealt with but itís hard not to admire the bravery of these 17th century mariners who sailed into uncharted waters to an unimaginably desolate and unforgiving place.
This is a beautifully written book, part adventure, part love story that describes the limits of human endurance in language that is as sparse and beautifully poetic as the landscape in which it is set.