Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter makes me think of Aristotle’s saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but this time in reverse. The parts are excellent, but woven into a whole that is considerably less satisfying than each part on its own.
Minds of Winter combines one contemporary narrative in the North West Territories where Fay, a young woman seeking answers about her grandfather, meets Nelson, who is looking for his missing brother Bert Nilsson, a former geologist turned high school teacher. Nelson looks so much like Bert that local police think he is Bert, which is convenient since he is driving Bert’s car and staying at Bert’s apartment while he waits for Bert to show up. There are many odd coincidences and connections between Nelson and Fay, or more accurately between Bert’s research and Fay. There is a bit of mystery and they seek some answers.
Fay and Nelson’s story is broken up by historical narratives, news clippings, reports, and histories that take us from a ball on the decks of the Terror and Erebus four years before they disappeared with Sir John Franklin in the futile search for the Northwest Passage in 1845 through polar adventures at the North and the South Poles and all sorts of mysteries surrounded a ubiquitous chronometer that goes from the Franklin expedition to the Scott expedition in Antarctica to Siberia and the Yukon and even English parlors.
There is a lot of mysterious goings on. Cecil Meares, the intrepid explorer and soldier, is all over the place. There’s a mysterious trapper whose identity is clearly falsified and whose death was falsified as well. It’s all exciting in the immediate chapters, but woven together, too much is unexplained and unresolved. It falls apart. What is Room 38? Who was that trapper? Who is buried in that pass? What’s with the island and the house in the valley? How are they visible, invisible?
I am an enthusiast for Antarctic and Arctic exploration stories. I have read Apsley Cherry-Girard’s The Worst Journey in the World and Ernest Shackleton’s South and dozens of other memoirs and histories of polar exploration, including several on the Franklin expedition. It made me eager to read Minds of Winter. I enjoyed every bit of the separate narratives independently and could happily read those snippets expanded into a novel, but for me, this book felt incomplete. There was no resolution, unless leaving everyone in the dark is a resolution.
I also thought O’Loughlin was a bit profligate with death. Of course, a novel that centers on the disappearance and death of explorers in the Antarctic and the Arctic and the tragic loss of the 133 men of the Erebus and Terror is going to have many deaths. But there are unnecessary deaths, too. In an almost supernatural way, throughout its history, anyone who looks too closely at this mystery seems to disappear, wander into the ice, or die. There’s a tin-foil hat kind of omnipotence at work and it seems so unlikely they would be concerned with hapless amateur investigators wandering around semi-aimlessly in the North West Territories.
Just this last fall, in September 2016, the Terror was found. The Erebus was found only two years ago. These mysteries of the past are still current, still relevant, and O’Loughlin brings considerable talent and imagination to the work. It’s well written, I felt in the moment while reading. During long treks on the ice, I found myself wrapping a blanket around my shoulder to counter the chill. That is how effectively he writes. It’s almost like O’Loughlin is someone who can knit an intricately patterned sweater, but does not know how to cast off at the end, so it all unravels.
But then, people mourn the loss of mystery, too, like the bartender complaining to Fay and Nelson about the discovery of the Erebus taking away one more mystery. Perhaps O’Loughlin wants his novel to be like Franklin, lost in the arctic expanse, mysterious and never to be found.
Minds of Winter will be published March 7th. I received an e-galley in advance from the publisher through NetGalley.