The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
Carrol & Graf Publishers, New York, 1995
Borrowed from my library.
I have been enamored of Arctic and Antarctic exploration ever since reading The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. I’ve read many fiction and nonfiction books about such adventures and The Birthday Boys is now one of my favorites.
The novel is told in five chapters, each in a different voice. Five men, out of the 65 who joined the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910, hoping to be the first to reach the South Pole. It includes the voice of Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the expedition. For Scott, a Royal Navy officer and explorer, it was his second voyage to the frozen continent.
Each of the chapters covers different parts of the journey and all speak with intensely different voices. Bainbridge gets inside the minds of these men in a way that is fantastic and imaginative, as if she spoke with each of them, got to know them as close friends. They hold different positions on the expedition, from a Petty Officer to Captain Scott.
There is “Taff” Evans, making his second journey with Scott, and in charge of the scientific and polar journey equipment. He loves to tell stories..
There is a trick to holding attention, to keeping interest at full pitch, and I learnt it as a boy from Idris Williams, the preacher in the chapel at the bottom of Glamorgan Street. It’s a matter of knowing which way the wind blows and trimming the sails accordingly. All the same I never found it necessary to alter my description of the cold, or of the ice flowers that bloomed along the edges of the sea. From page 8.
Then the is Doctor Edward Wilson, known as Uncle Bill, medical officer and dear friend of Captain Scott. He has a strange vision on the sea voyage.
A moment before I had been warm as toast, and now I was so cold I shuttered, and in that shuttering blinked, and the creature was gone, though not before I had gazed into those lidless eyes fixed on mine, observed where its powerful shoulders jutted into wings, followed the silver spray kicked up by it’s cruel talons as it skimmed the bright water. There was no doubt in my mind that the apperition was a harbringer of death and yet, in the blaze of that terrible second a sensation akin to joy, something pitched between sexual arousal and bubbled up inside me. Still my body shook, and through chattering teeth I heard myself stuttering over and over, “So cold…so cold…so cold.” From page 58.
And Lieutenant “Birdie” Bowers, a man short of stature but filled with an incredible strength of spirit.
It wasn’t all misery. On one of our halts we lay spread-eagled on the ice and stared up at a sky blazing with the glory of the most wonderful aurora I’d ever seen. I groaned beneath the splendor of those silken curtains, red,green and orange, billowing at the window of heaven.
`Tell me, tell me,’ pleaded Cherry; without his glasses the whirling display was but a blur.
I don’t know what I told him, for the efforts were at first mesmeric, then hallucinatory. I was falling, diving towards a sea whose ripples spread and widened until they touched the edges of my soul. From page 146.
The story is, of course, heartrending. The author chose to give voice to the five men who died on this journey. What moved me the most was the imagined intimacy that develops between these men, their caring and their strength. Mistakes were made, lives were lost. This was humans pushing the boundaries. It is what we do.
This is the first Beryl Bainbridge novel I have read. I intend to read more.