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White by Marie Darrieussecq (trans Ian Monk

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It is 2015, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is taking shape. Edmée, the only woman on the station, works to secure radio communication with the outside world. She’s all too aware that she’s the focus of constant scrutiny – and it’s not just from the mend at the base.

A beautifully atmospheric novel of ghosts and love and memory at the end of the world, White is an outstanding achievement from an extraordinary writer.
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White is a fascinating novel about survival in a hostile, sterile environment, about closed communities, about alien landscapes… situating these all on Earth.

This makes Darrieussecq an unusual writer in an SF context; White takes place simultaneously to an attempt to establish a permanent Mars base, has conract with NASA employees engaged in that effort… and yet is barely interested in it, except as an occasional comparitor for the utterly hostile environment of the book. White is interested in the idea of a terrestrial landscape as hostile to life as that of Mars: the far, frozen South. Antarctica is, of course, famously sterile and lifeless, with conditions inimical even to extremophiles and as unchanging as the face of Mars; so the two missions running in parallel make for an interesting comparison, as Darrieussecq draws out.

The plot is relatively simple; really, it’s a love story, of Edmée, the radio technician, and Peter, the heating engineer; White has its core in these two characters, in their pasts leading them to the White Project, in their connections as disconnected souls whose links to their cultures and countries are superficial and shallow (Edmée as an immigrant, Peter as a refugee), in their attraction. This could work horrendously in some hands, and Darrieussecq is hardly entirely successful in portraying the refugee experience; but at the same time, the grounding of their physical isolation in Antarctica in an emotional isolation beforehand is carried off really well. That the rest of the cast are barely characters hardly matters; they’re as much backdrop against which the romance can play out as Antarctica itself is.

There is, however, one other character we must mention, and that is the narrator. White is a very odd book in this regard; the narrator is, or the narrators are, the collective spirits of explorers, travellers and others who have been pioneers pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Hence Scott and Amundsen and their teams are here, as ghostly presences, not only in the narrative as figures of Antarctic discovery and tragedy, but also as spirits who take an active role in the narrative; that is, the ghostly narrators at times are Scott, are Amundsen, are their companions or their animals, or are explorers from completely different parts of the world.

This narratorial voice has a huge impact on White, inevitably; and a somewhat strange one. It means we move in and out of the specifics of the characters to a more general discussion of the Antarctic; we’re both connected to and yet also dispassionate about the events of the novel, drive them and simply observe them. It gets especially interesting at times when characters are in highly emotional states, as this seems to be when the dissociation is greatest, with strange, evocative, semi-abstract descriptions which talk around, rather than directly about, the emotional states of the principal actors. This also gives White one of the strangest sex scenes you are ever likely to read…

White is one of those strange, beautiful little books that are amazing blends of the literary and the genre; perhaps Darrieussecq at times disappears too far into some of her conceits, but they’re conceits that deserve a little disappearance!


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