Book Review: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

the white darknessFirst published 4th December, 2005 in StarMag


By Geraldine McCaughrean

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 272 pages

I HAVE been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for 90 years.”

The reader gets a pretty clear idea what Symone, heroine of The White Darkness, is like from the first line of Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest (and, in my opinion, best thus far) novel.

Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the men on Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1911 expedition to the South Pole, is not usually the sort of bloke 14-year-olds obsess about. but Symone, shy, sensitive and romantic, has neither the vocabulary nor the stomach for the preoccupations of the average 21st century adolescent. While her classmates discuss snogging and boys, she dreams about glaciers and snow storms and Oates.

Oates, who said, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” and crawled out of his tent, never to be seen again, may be long dead, but to Symone, he is very real and her only comfort.

Oates is portrayed as attractive and gentle, with a wry sense of humour and the gift of saying just the right thing at the right time. It’s easy to forget that he’s a figment of Sym’s imagination, so naturally does he fit into her life and on the page. It’s as if she’s conjured flesh and blood (and spirit – most definitely spirit) out of legend! (Well, in anycase, McCaughrean certainly has.)

This is a gift many teenagers possess – staring posters of their movie and pop idols into life, living life inside a book or, more accurately in this day and age, a music video or graphic novel.

It is Symone’s “uncle” Victor, business partner of her dead father, and a sort of slightly dodgy fairy godfather and mentor, who first fills her head with chilly imaginings, buying her books about The Ice (lingo for the Antartic) and the North Pole; penguins, seals and boreales; Scott and Oates.

Uncle Victor plans a family trip to Paris, but at the last minute, Sym’s mother’s passport mysteriously vanishes. It turns up again, in Victor’s coat pocket, once he and Sym are safely in the French capital. But before she can confront him with her suspicions, he announces that they will be going on an Antartic expedition of their own! Sym is so thrilled at the prospect that she registers, but doesn’t quite manage to react to the uncanny sight of Victor chewing the SIM card of his mobile phone!

The pace, never slack in the first place, picks up even more from then on. Victor, it appears, has signed up for a package tour of sorts with a travel company called Pengwings. Among their travelling companions is a film producer, Manfred Bruch, and his hunky son, Sigurd, who proves to be quite a distraction for Symone (welcome or not, she can’t quite decide).

The group journeys south, via Buenos Aires and Punta Arenas, and it’s an adventure: Symone is surrounded by startling, colourful, ridiculous people, and stunning, long-wished-for, long-dreamt-of scenery. The excitement goes to her head like champagne, but thanks to Oates – ironic, practical, matter of fact, ever the voice of reason, offering her constant support, courage and inspiration – she never quite loses it.

And when things go wrong, when tragedy strikes and lives are threatened, it is Oates who saves Symone. Well, maybe it’s her intense belief of his realness that pulls her through: the combination of facts read and memorised, the poetic licence of a television script, faded pictures, and her youthful, hopeful yearning for romance and passion creates a man whose love saves her in the nick of time.

When Symone looks back on her narrow escape, she is struck by the possibility that Oates was not simply a figment of her imagination. Something happened that cannot be explained away as wishful thinking or an active imagination. At this point in the story, the reader will experience chills – and it won’t be for the first time.

The White Darkness is full of spine-tingling, breath-taking moments, thanks to the exciting, emotionally-engaging plot, McCaughrean’s intoxicating, sparkling and magical way with words, and her heart-stopping portrayal of Captain Oates.

And of course, there’s Symone, the most sympathetic, heart-breaking heroine since George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. McCaughrean’s description of Symone’s interior world is beautiful and painful. It’s the best thing about the book and that’s saying a lot as there isn’t a single superfluous sentence in what I think is the most perfect book to be published this year.

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