Book Review: Everland
by Rebecca Hunt
Europa Editions, 2015
Everland, Rebecca Hunt’s second novel (following her excellent debut, Mr. Chartwell) is a dual narrative of subtle and bracing complexity; it’s the story of two Antarctic expeditions separated by a century.
In 1913, the Joseph Evelyn, a dinghy launched from the research vessel Kismet, is caught in a sudden storm that nearly kills the three men on board, Napps, Millet-Bass, and Dinners, who wash up on the barren, frozen volcanic outcrop of Everland with almost no supplies or strength. And in 2012, an expedition has been launched in commemoration of that earlier doomed voyage, with another trio of explorers, Brix, Jess, and Decker, intent on following in the footsteps of the Joseph Evelyn crew. The later trio knows the earlier one quite well, or thinks they do, having grown up watching the famous movie adaptation (with narration by Richard Burton) of the book written by the Kismet‘s captain. That account was, we learn in time, considerably simplified, and of course Hollywood has simplified it even more:
Napps and Millet-Bass were now human in name only. Their characters had been refined and refined again until the proportions were grotesque. Millet-Bass was a violent apelike thing with mad unspeakable lusts and a history of being unable to control himself. He couldn’t be blamed for his actions, though, because he was incapable of logical thought. It was accepted as common knowledge that Millet-Bass couldn’t read or spell and thought the moon was magic. He ate bones; they’d seen him do it. Napps was a schemer and a spy who lurked in the dark devising ways to hate a man. They’d all sensed his ear pressed to the door, his fingers rifling through all their private letters.
In perfectly timed and calibrated cross-cutting between the experiences of the two different trios, Hunt steadily broadens and deepens our understanding of what really happened back in the 1913 expedition and why, bringing to life the brutal choices faced by Millet-Bass, Napps, and Dinners, stranded in a bleak landscape where “The heartbreak of knowing proved to be slightly less painful than the raw anguish of hoping.” Some of the discoveries made by the 2012 crew hammer home earlier plot developments, and others run slightly ahead of the alternate narrative, creating a weave of shadow-possibilities that begins to unsettle the modern-day explorers in ways even they themselves are hard-pressed to understand:
The fun had drained out of the situation for Jess. Whatever odd and inexplicable event had happened here, it seemed to her that the cave was now a sinister place which possessed the ability to absorb old misfortune and then to reflect it back on to them. The ghosts of Napps and his men were suddenly very present. She asked in a volume which betrayed her irrational sense of having three dead men as an audience, “Does anyone else feel a bit uneasy about this?”
Everland is by turns harrowing and touching, a masterful look not only at the lengths some desperate people will go in order to survive but also at how the nuances of the past are lost or swamped or frozen out of all recognition by the layers of time. The only regret in this powerful novel finally being available in a sturdy Europa paperback is in that edition’s cover design, which is not only lamentably drab compared to the vibrant Penguin cover the book got in the UK but also, through an unlucky cover-placement of the Europa logo, leaves the reader with the impression that a trio of Antarctic explorers is following a pink flamingo across the snowy wastes. A warning to the hopeful: there is no such scene in the book.