Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995)

Readers will recognize quickly whether there is a match to be made between them and Thomas Wharton’s first novel. Ten pages should do it.

First, there is the epigraph, from Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter: “As if everything in the world is the history of ice.” (A lyrical but, arguably, nonsensical statement.)

Then, there is a note which explains that this is a work of fiction and contains deliberate historical and geographical inaccuracies. (Well, you know how THAT kind of thing annoys some readers no end.)

Following these short bits are two maps of Jasper and the surrounding mountainous area (hand-drawn and not-to-scale, with nunataks and icecaps and the like marked) and the definition of névé (a high plane of snow and ice from which the glaciers descend) which appears as a prelude to the first chapter. (Hardly suggests a romp of a read, does it.)

And that first chapter begins as follows: “At a quarter past three in the afternoon, on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse.”

If for a moment, you thought it might be a romp of a read after all, page three has him rescued, and, by page ten, it seems likely that the ensuing novel will be a meditative exploration of what Doctor Byrne experienced in the time he spent imprisoned in the crevasse.

I admit: I was hooked early on.

As was Doctor Byrne. This sentence is actually taken from the final pages of the novel, but it reveals the disparity of emotions his character embodies throughout the narrative:

“He crouches, pushes up his coat sleeve, and lowers his hand into the bone-cracking cold water.”

Byrne has touched — and been touched by — this hauntingly beautiful landscape. He cannot resist plunging parts of himself into it, even though it is inherently painful to do so.

Thomas Wharton’s novel Icefields — as you might guess from only the first ten pages — is about history and geography, endurance and extremes, loss and recovery.

And it’s also about relationships, the way that they transform over time, sometimes more slowly than expected, marked by the inexplicable and the misunderstood.

 Glacial ice is not a liquid, nor is it a solid. It flows like lava, like melting wax, like honey. Supple glass. Fluid stone. 
 To watch it flow, one must be patient. There are few changes that can be seen in the course of one day.”

The prose in this novel also takes time. There are many characters — all of whom are shaped by the forces described (or alluded to) in the opening pages of this novel — and many years pass for them and between them.

The chapters are short, often episodic and lyrical, and sometimes the page seems more about the margins than the text. (I know: this is just the sort of thing that would drive some readers to throw the book off the top of a glacier.)

And although there’s a lot of ground to cover (literally and metaphorically), there is not a strong sense of narrative:

–You were feverish, and you babbled a fair bit.
–What about? He glances at the girl. Tell me,Sara, what did I say?
–Enough that I could guess we might see you again. That there was something here you wouldn’t forget. You’d have to come back and try to finish the story.
They drive in silence around the bend of the dark hill. The lights of Jasper flicker through the trees.
–Can I finish it? Byrne finally asks.
–I don’t know everything, but I know it’s a story with wings, Sara says. They’re hard to catch.

Icefields is a story with wings and it’s hard to catch, like Sara says. And it’s unforgettably harsh and beautiful.