I think—I think I might be a little tired of reading about the Northwest Passage and Arctic exploration.
Ed O’Loughlin’s novel, Minds of Winter, looks amazing. Sounds amazing. I wanted to read it. I bumped it to the very top of my very large reading pile. It’s something like 480 pages. I was committed. I slogged, trapped in snow and ice, and may have fallen asleep once. It is heavy with research. I mean—you can see the research. It’s there. It’s intense. It’s loaded. It’s almost as heavily loaded as a non-fiction. I 100 per cent give O’Loughlin 100 per cent on research skills. Gold star. Really.
O’Loughlin goes all in on complex construction too. The story flits around between the north and south pole, past and present, real historical figures and imagined, Europe and Canada. Each chapter or phase builds on the one before it, chronological or not. I can only imagine the flow chart required to keep it all organized. All this research and complexity pays off: the book was a 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist.
But. (You knew it was coming). I admit to wanting some payoff, some final outcome, some mystery solved. And maybe, somewhere in the details, O’Loughlin solves the mystery for us. I just might have missed it. But in case he didn’t, here’s how it starts: Fay Morgan, British by birth, Canadian by technicality, goes to Inuvik. She’s stuck at the airport. She gets picked up by sketchy Nelson Nilsson, who is looking for his brother, Bert, in the same places she’s looking for some threads to her grandfather. Bert and Fay’s grandfather, long dead, share a penchant for secrets. And their secrets are intertwined around the riddle of the Arnold 294 chronometer, which appeared 100 years after it was thought lost with the Franklin Northwest Passage expedition. This chronometer features heavily throughout the decades. It’s the link tying things together, although I didn’t ever figure out the importance of the chronometer. It seems like nothing but a talisman, a bit of obsolete tech.
Throughout the book, we see Fay’s story, we see her grandfather’s, we see the stories of the people Bert was researching. The only story we don’t see directly, interestingly, is Bert’s. His motivations, his path, stays buried. Most everything stays buried in snow and ice.
If O’Loughlin is trying to make the point that cold, darkness, isolation and war make people behave strangely and see things, I’m convinced. Wholly convinced. Science hasn’t solved all our mysteries. His book doesn’t either. At one point, a character laments the discovery of the Erebus, the solving of a perfectly good mystery. I’m onboard with that. I do wish fiction would solve the mysteries it creates though.
Ed O’Loughlin was at Events 1 (Between the Pages: An Evening with the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists, 37 (North as Never Before) and 62 (Magnetic Mysterious North) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.