book jacket blurb:
"Birdie Bowers is a woman with a dead man s name. Her parents had been fascinated by Henry Birdie Bowers, one of Captain Scott s companions on his ill-fated polar expedition. A hundred years after the death of Bowers and Scott, she sets out to discover what really happened to them...
The discovery of Captain Scott s body in the Antarctic in November 1912 started a global obsession with him as a man and an explorer. But one mystery remains – why did he and his companions spend their last ten days in a tent only 11 miles from the safety of a depot that promised food and shelter?
Dead Men tells the story of two paths. One is a tragic journey of exploration on the world s coldest continent, the other charts a present-day relationship and the redemptive power of love."
I pre-ordered Dead Men back in February when Richard Pierce first shared news of the book's imminent release. Richard is a friend of mine since our Authonomy days, and I was thrilled that one of his books was finally going to be released. Needless to say, I looked forward to being able to sit back with my own copy of his Antarctic-set work and read it at my leisure at long last.
The only problem with reading something written by a friend is that it can be hard to separate the friendship from the reading itself. It's only natural – and human, I suspect – to give a bit of leeway to a writer you know personally. As a writer myself, it's a concern I have when my writer friends read and review my work, or when I in turn read and/or review theirs. I do my best to keep my reading objective and unbiased, and sometimes that's quite a struggle to do.
However, with Dead Men, this wasn't a problem at all. From the very first pages I was swept up into the story, and found myself moved to tears before I'd gotten through the first chapter.
The novel alternates between scenes from the past which detail events during Captain Scott's expedition in 1912 and the aftermath of its sobering end, and scenes set in the modern day which tell the story of a pair of seemingly mis-matched lovers who meet by chance on the London Underground.
The surest proof I was involved in the story (aside from my emotional reaction to how Pierce details the passing of the men at various points in the book) was the fact I wasn't sure how to feel about Birdie Bowers, the woman with the dead man's name. Her often careless and contrary – almost spiteful – nature bothered me at first. Perhaps this was because I'd already found myself identifying with Adam Caird and feared that this bothersome woman would hurt him in spite of his consuming devotion to her. His tender, sensitive nature made me afraid that no good end could possibly come from this pairing.
In time, I realized that Birdie – obsessed with understanding the circumstances in which her namesake perished alongside Captain Scott – was merely a reflection of that obsession. In fact, over the course of her life, she has come to resemble the land where he died – unpredictable, harsh and hauntingly beautiful, and utterly compelling for those same reasons.
Watching Adam change and grow through the story was also heartening. It's done subtly, not overtly, and with a natural grace, like all of Pierce's writing. Initially timid and introverted, the challenge of loving tempestuous Birdie – and understanding whether or not the effort is worth anything in the long run – forces him to make decisions which lead him to a greater inner strength. This becomes most clear when the pair make their own journey to Antarctica in search of the truth Birdie believes Scott's tent (now buried beneath 100 years of snow and ice) contains.
Pierce describes Antarctica itself in a beautifully detailed but not overwhelming way. He has travelled there himself and it shows. He is able to paint the landscape so the reader has the feeling of the stark beauty and the deceptive dimensions of the place. In fact, just about every setting is described with a precision and skill which places the reader there, in the moment, so when one closes this book after reading the final pages (and that oh-so-perfect final paragraph), one comes away with a sense of having been there.
There are elements of the story which lean toward the supernatural, but all of them are events which are subtle and believable. It's a fine balance which Pierce handles deftly; he never overdoes these moments, but instead conveys them in a powerfully understated manner which borders on being poetic.
If the reader is like me, they will also come away from this book with a sense of satisfaction and melancholy for a number of reasons. For me, my reasons included: having finished the book too soon; Birdie and Adam's final decisions; the appreciation of what those brave and foolhardy Dead Men did, not so very long ago, and why they did it; and then, finally, a sense of gratitude for Richard Pierce having shared this story with us.
I highly recommend this book.