It is 1913. Three men – Napps, Dinners and Millet-Bass – are part of an expedition to an Antarctic island which comes to be known as Everland; 100 years later, another group, two quite different women, Brix and Jess, and an older man, Decker, also find themselves on Everland, in part to celebrate the centenary of what turned out to be something of a disastrous expedition, but also in part to do their job, cataloguing wildlife, observing the changes in the environment and, of course, surviving. In 1913, the team almost perish on their way to the island in a terrible storm and one of their group, Dinners, finds himself ill and more or less perennially beset from that point on, paranoid, imagining monsters and worrying that his fellow explorers are growing to despise him (which, of course, they are). A similar problem besets the modern team, as Brix – a young but experienced outdoorswoman – can’t do with Jess, who is out in the strange, alien topography for the first time and struggling, to keep up with the demands of the team and the job and to cope with her surroundings. There is also an additional tier of complication (and it is complication – Everland is quite freighted with characters and, both initially and at various points in the book, Hunt’s tendency to lightly sketch character somewhat derails the action) as we also concern ourselves with the crew on board the ship and their attempts to rescue Napps, Dinners and Millet-Bass (and record their findings for posterity). It is through this second skein that we learn a little back story about Napps (who everyone thinks is a bit of a bastard) – and history is not kind to him, with a film and countless books recording the ‘official’ account of events that (of course) we come to learn is not the entire story.
Hunt is tremendously strong when it comes to describing the world in which these characters find themselves:
“The weight of compacted snow had bulldozed a deep, highway-wide gorge through the island. As the glacier chewed down into the bedrock, it caused thirty-metre high moraine borders to pile up at the sides, like the banks of a river. These moraines acted as a water-mark, showing how much the glacier had receded. What would have once filled the gorge was now a thinner lower flow of ice.”
And, later in the novel when Napps, Dinners and Millet-Bass’s situation is coming to a head – and “Chunks of glacier ice appeared quilted, almost spongy… While areas of shadow were so black as to appear void” – the monsters that lurk in Dinners’ head seem to merge with the landscape:
“The real dilemma, Dinners now understood clearly, was that they were being watched by something devious. It lurked outside the boundary of his limited vision, but it was certainly near enough to sense. Although he had caught glimpses of movement, yes he had. There’d been definite sightings he could not in any way convince himself were imagined.”
Hunt is both subtle and playful in the ways she mirrors the two expeditions across history – Jess and Dinners are distant cousins, as are Brix and Millet-Bass and Decker and Napps, by the end – but she also mis-steps. There are occasions where she commits that most literary of sins in having pivotal moments revolve upon things that remain unsaid, relying on the reader to try and piece together what it was that actually happened (we’ve all of us read literary books in which characters look at one another and things remain unsaid and whether or not this works depends on the skill of the writer and perhaps Hunt is not quite as skilled as she thinks she is). There is also a relatively inexplicable change in one of the main characters at the climax (the person we thought was a villain perhaps wasn’t! the person we thought was okay might well have been a villain! dan-dan-dah!) – and again it doesn’t entirely come off – but by that point larger problems with the book (such as the largely unnecessary chapters expended on the crew of the boat and also the seeming preponderance of chapters in which the same things happen over and over again – this is particularly damaging in the 1913 sections) have somewhat scuppered your enjoyment.
So. Despite the fact that we had been looking forward to Everland – and for quite some time too (it was supposed to be published in 2013 and was then pushed back) – it turns out to disappoint. In truth, Everland feels like a book that would have rewarded stricter editing. If it had clocked in at about 200 pages, if the second skein of plot had been stripped back to a preface and an epilogue, if Hunt had made tougher decisions, if Hunt had really pushed each chapter to work a little harder, it would have made for a better book. As it is, this reader was reminded of Magnus Mills’ superior exploratory fable, Explorers of the New Century. If you are going to read one book of this ilk, I’d recommend the Mills…
Any Cop?: Lacking the punch of Hunt’s debut, Mr Chartwell, we’d have to say that Everland is somewhat overlong and somewhat in need of an edit down.