Minds of Winter. Ed O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin, Ed. Minds of Winter. Anansi, Toronto, 2016. F;11/17.

I’ve picked up a few of the Giller Prize shortlist novels, including the winner, Bellevue Square. This long story was for me third out of three. A lot of novels create intrigue by being complicated backed by a midden of research, but then somehow don’t deliver the grace and charm I’m always looking for, and/or don’t quite pull the many threads of plot and character together. This author made a brave attempt, but either I was too literarily lazy or innumerate to pick up the pieces or he didn’t quite make them cohere. A near miss, anyway.

I’m going to avoid précising the complicated plot in detail. Nelson, a young middle-aged guy and Fay, an English woman run into one another way to hell and gone up in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, in the freezing cold and weird seasonal light and dark. I’m sure the description of the towns and conditions is deadly realistic. Any romantic relationship these two have develops slowly and over both of their objections. The interest instead whirls in huge ellipses from north to south pole and from the mid-19th century to the present, anchored in Sir John Franklin’s famous catastrophic Northwest passage exploration in 1845, where two ships and the entire crew of 130 or so were lost, with rumours and some evidence of cannibalism and hideous mistakes.

It seems both Nelson and Fay are seeking the truth about family members: his brother and her grandfather. Gradually and with great geographic and historical leaps back and forth, it unfolds that the two departed family members are strangely connected through the disappearance and reappearance of one of Franklin’s chronometers. At the end of the pretty long and drawn-out description of all the plot elements, we get a Sliding Doors-type ending thanks to which our author exits with a flourish of postmodern ambiguity.

I was grateful for the maps although some of them didn’t seem to correspond to the plot, but I found the latitude and longitude chapter titles a bit much of an arrogation of expertise, and an invitation to more delving into geographic realities than I had patience for. Could there have been some numerologic hocus-pocus going on? I doubt it but again I think we were invited to wonder.

O’Loughlin handles scenes and characters nicely, Bess for example, the Northern Queen sometime lover of explorer Amundsen, who flits back and forth from the north to New York to London, outsmarting and charming the pants off everybody. But what was Amundsen doing in the plot here, except that at some point he had his hands on the chronometer, and to add another grinning skeleton frozen-to-death martyrdom?

I guess I don’t have a lot of taste for fiction that relies on heavily accurate historical detail and terrible conditions. I was relieved that this one didn’t win the Giller. A reader with a lot more knowledge and interest in polar exploration and a fan of Agatha Christie-type brain-teasing plots might like this book a lot more than I did.

7.4/7.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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