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Afterlands

by Steven Heighton

It is unlikely that any field of human endeavour will surpass polar exploration in terms of the sheer number of spectacularly heroic failures it produced. Hundreds of men risked exposure, starvation, frostbite, and death in order to reach the poles, variously driven forward by personal obsession, scientific curiosity, or national pride.

Eventually a few succeeded and the whole crazy business could be called off, but left in the wake of these adventures were innumerable stories of triumph and failure, though mostly the latter. Steven Heighton’s second novel has at its core the true story of the first, and perhaps most remarkable, of these failures, the voyage of the Polaris.

The Polaris intended to sail to the North Pole in 1871 and place the American flag there, but faced rough seas, thick ice, and the untimely death of her captain. Half the ship’s contingent was then inadvertently abandoned with scant provisions on an ice floe near Ellesmere Island. Among these 19 people were Lieutenant Tyson, the ranking officer; Roland Kruger, the Prussian second mate; a number of German immigrants who had been hired on as seamen; and two “Esquimau” men and their families.

Over the next six and a half months, through the coldest and darkest part of the year, these castaways drifted over 1,800 miles, before being finally rescued off the coast of Labrador. Afterlands charts the trajectories of Tyson, Kruger, and Tukulito, one of the Inuk women stranded with them, during the ordeal on the floe and in the years that followed it.

On the ice, the crew of the Polaris found that they were in as much danger from one another as they were from the elements and lack of food. Tyson quickly lost control of the situation, and the German seamen staged a mutiny of sorts. There was also suspicion that a thief or thieves were helping themselves to the food stores, and soon accusations were rampant. The castaways did not lack arms or ammunition, and as paranoia and starvation ran through the camp, so did talk of murder and cannibalism. Think Lord of the Flies, but with everyone too cold and hungry to leave their igloos most of the time.

After being rescued from the floe, the real Tyson went on to write a book called Arctic Experiences. Heighton smartly interweaves paraphrases from that book and from Tyson’s original notes with his story, showing the inevitable palimpsests, exaggerations, and half-truths that are part of any retelling.

In Tyson’s book Kruger is depicted as a troublemaker and thief, and he spends the rest of his life trying to escape the shadow that lingers over him, eventually fleeing to Mexico. Tyson finds his fame and celebrity empty and short-lived and before long is back in the Arctic on another ill-fated voyage. Tukulito, whose strength during the ordeal made her the unrequited love of both these men, finds herself permanently cast away in Connecticut without family or identity.

Heighton is one of our most ambitious and prodigiously talented writers. He has already given us four volumes of poetry, two short-story collections, a collection of essays on the role of the artist in the digital age, and a successful, ambitious first novel, The Shadow Boxer. His bio lists a number of awards and nominations, and it is quite possible that Afterlands will add to his list of accolades.

This is a more accomplished novel than The Shadow Boxer. That was an excellent debut, but felt overwritten in parts, with each sentence and paragraph packed to the point of bursting. Heighton’s prose is more controlled here, even spare at times, and from the first page, in which a tubercular 10-year-old Inuk girl plays Mendelssohn at a recital in Hartford, to the last, as Kruger scours the Sierra Madre for the last remaining members of an oppressed Indian tribe, the ideas are grand and the circumstances epic.

The only thing missing here is the charisma of Heighton’s first novel, the charm informed by the humour of its characters and their emotional connections and disconnections. The problem with the characters in Afterlands is that they are defined largely by their impotence and stoicism. They are tossed about by seas, ice, celebrity, war, and love and almost never act until it is far too late. Despite his skill, Heighton never quite manages to bridge the gulf this stoicism creates between reader and character. We never fully warm up to these people.

But for those who roll their eyes at the prospect of another historical novel from a young CanLit star, rest assured that Heighton’s purpose here is not to dazzle with research, but rather to find characters at the boundary points in history, those rare moments when the tectonic plates of different cultures grind against one another and threaten destruction.