The Nature of Ice

Robyn Mundy’s debut novel The Nature of Ice posed some challenges for me. Couple my horror of cold weather with the unsettling part frozen wastelands play in my dreamscapes and a novel set almost entirely in Antarctica was going to be problematic. But the book drew me in nonetheless. The Nature of Ice is a multi-layered novel about love, exploration, separation and the lure of the unknown. Freya Jorgensen is the artist in residence at Davis Station in present day Antarctica. She is summering at the station to take photographs of the sites made famous by Frank Hurley in the 1912 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. This ‘conversation’ between Freya’s contemporary images and Hurley’s iconic black and white photographs (reproduced in the book) is a fascinating element in the novel. The Antarctica Freya sees in her viewfinder pulses with colour and light: auroras run the spectrum from crimson to white across the sky; steel-blue ice crevasses are as dangerous as they are beautiful; bright orange lichen clings to rocks and a quad bike’s tyres leave behind a swathe of luminescent green. The colour bursting from Mundy’s prose contrasts with Hurley’s stark images which have been so influential in establishing Australians’ ideas of ‘the white continent’.

Freya experiences Antarctica as an artistic and spiritual sanctuary from her overbearing husband Marcus and his compulsive cannibalisation of her work. Marcus is writing the text to accompany her exhibition and in successive emails encroaches further and further into her ownership of the project (bit of a spoiler alert here though: the blurb on the back of the novel announces ‘the breakdown of [Freya’s] marriage’ well before it is decided in the text). Struggling to break free of her husband’s possessiveness Freya draws close to her field guide, Chad, who is also the station carpenter and an Antarctica veteran. Chad shares Freya’s instinctive feeling for the ice. Their comradely silence in the vastness is like a balm after the claustrophobia of Freya’s marriage.

Contrasted with this contemporary love story is that of the 1912 expedition leader Dr Douglas Mawson and his considerably younger fiancé Paquita Delprat. Paquita was only twenty when Mawson left her with an engagement ring and a promise to return within a year (it took him two). They wrote to one another as if into a void, uncertain if the other would receive the letters and diary entries or if (in Paquita’s case) the loved one was even still alive. Mundy worked from archival and diary sources to recreate the romance and blends it seamlessly into the novel, which is no mean feat.

By far the most compulsive love story, though, is that between the characters and Antarctica itself. Mundy establishes the lure of ‘the white continent’ and the potential price of such obsession. As the epigraph reads, ‘After Antarctica, nothing is the same’. The recreation of Mawson’s harrowing trek across Antarctica makes for page-turning stuff. Two of his colleagues and friends died trying to get back to winter quarters from their exploration while Mawson dropped from 95 to 51 kilos in thirteen weeks as he raced against time, sickness and appalling weather to rendezvous with his ship. The sections of the book that detail what the early Antarctic explorers endured are genuinely gripping – everything from the trauma of having to kill and eat the sledging dogs to the delirium induced by cold and malnutrition is convincing and visceral. So visceral in fact that the contemporary romance – conducted against a background of heated rooms, on-station chefs and email – can’t quite compete with the gutsy, raw man versus wild story of Mawson and Hurley.

Robyn Mundy is an Antarctica specialist and it shows. Mundy first visited Antarctica in 1996 and has returned many times since, including as an assistant on an emperor penguin project in 2008. She worked at both Davis and Mawson stations which has enabled her to recreate the hot-house camaraderie of the station scientists and tradies. Completed as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Edith Cowan University this impressive debut will appeal to history buffs, exploration enthusiasts and anyone with a fascination for the continent you will no longer think of as ‘white’ after reading this book.

I recently caught up with Robyn Mundy who shared some of her thoughts on writing:

What is the best thing about being a writer?

To reach a point in the writing where the characters breathe and speak as if of their own accord.

When the writing is complete, it’s a wonderful, rewarding sensation to be told by readers that they liked your book.

What is the most challenging thing about being a writer?

Juggling the balance between the need to earn an income and the time to write.

Recognising chapters or passages of text, that may have taken weeks or longer to write, that no longer belong in the story.

Which writers have most influenced you and how?

The truth is that every novel and short story influences me as a writer. When I read, some part of my mind works hard to track what the writer is doing–and how they accomplish it. As for specific writers and their work: Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’, written in 1930 and told from the point of view of an aged, deliriously ill woman, has had a lasting impact on me, both for the power of Granny’s ‘voice’, and for Porter’s ability to lay open a woman’s life—and the heartbreak carried through it—within the breadth of a short story. Another is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for expanding the possibilities of first-person point-of-view, especially that of a seemingly mute, mentally unstable narrator. Sonya Hartnett for her brilliance in capturing innocence then subjecting it to a torturous world. Joan London, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Georgina Harding, Alex Miller, Michael Cunningham, Patrick Süskind, Meg Rosoff, Alice Munro, Alice Sebold and a hundred others, for stories I love to read.

How did you feel when you held your first copy of The Nature of Ice?

I imagine the feeling to be as exhilarating and grateful a moment as a mother being handed her new baby.

What is your favourite word?

scintillating and gilded are two that perfectly describe the effects of light upon ice.

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