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Knopf Canada, Jun 11, 2010 - Fiction - 416 pages
3 Reviews
In 1872, the USS Polaris sailed for the Arctic on a mission to hoist the U.S. flag at the North Pole. But the expedition was a failure, and half of the party – nineteen men, women and children of different nationalities–were cast adrift on an ice floe off the coast of Ellesmere Island, where they endured six desperate months of starvation, bloodshed and other horrors. Afterlands, a profoundly moving and gripping book, takes characters drawn from history and transforms their experiences into an absorbing tale of unrequited love, unsettled scores and the high cost of loyalty.

The novel begins in 1876, when three of the survivors – George Tyson, Tukulito and Roland Kruger–are uneasily reunited four years after they were rescued from the ice. They are still inextricably connected by their ordeal–and Tyson has recently published an account of their shattering experiences which casts Kruger as a spy and villain, and disgraces Tukulito as well.

What happened on the ice, as Afterlands explores, was far more complex. The heart of the book moves between Tyson’s diaries and a riveting narrative of Arctic survival. From the moment they are set adrift, and even before, Kruger and Tyson seem destined to clash: Kruger is an intelligent individualist, an outsider who refuses to be loyal to any one country; Tyson, meanwhile, is a flawed but sometimes brilliant leader, a man who needs to constantly be testing himself against the world. Brave but also insecure, he is unable to stop the German contingent of his party from banding together under their national flag in an armed near-mutiny on the drifting ice.

The third key character in this book, Tukulito, was the Arctic’s first professional interpreter. Known also as Hannah, she moves between two worlds: expert at gutting a seal, she has also had tea with Queen Victoria. Her different roles – translator, mother, mender, marksman – keep the party from disaster, as suspicion and violence increase. And the quiet, impossible passion Kruger feels for her almost redeems their lives in a frozen hell.

But Afterlands is also a novel about what follows the life-changing event: the long shadow it casts, as well as the conflicting stories that compete to become historical record. Back in the world, the protagonists will experience various degrees of tragedy. Tukulito’s is perhaps the most personal, while Tyson, who sought only to gain the world’s esteem, is disgraced by later failure. Kruger, meanwhile, attempts to disappear into Mexico, again seeking a place beyond “the colonels of the world” – but he finds himself, perhaps inevitably, drawn once more into the unending conflicts between nations, between peoples.

This novel is a triumph of storytelling from one of Canada’s most acclaimed writers. Gripping and beautiful, it is a scintillating exploration of the extremes of human experience. Afterlands brilliantly examines both a devastating encounter with the natural world and the unrelenting demands of the human heart.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - carioca - LibraryThing

I love novels that draw on historical facts. This one is a rich tale following the incident of Arctic survival of the Polaris in 1817; crewmembers and passengers were stranded on an ice flow for six ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - deliriumslibrarian - LibraryThing

A strange novel grasping after something that it knows it cannot catch: history, the suppressed voice of an indigenous woman surrounded by white culture, things that melt like ice floes. The strangeness of life on the floe, laid down in wrought language, stays with me. Read full review

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About the author (2010)

Steven Heighton is the author of the novel Afterlands, which has been nominated for the Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award and was a Globe and Mail, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Province, and Vancouver Sun Best Book in 2005. Afterlands subsequently appeared in the United States, where it was a New York Times Book Review and a Historical Novels Review Editors’ Choice; in Britain, where it was a Scotland on Sunday, Glasgow Herald, Independent and Book of the Year; and in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. He is also the author of The Shadow Boxer, which was a Canadian bestseller and a Publishers’ Weekly Book of the Year in 2002. His other fiction books are the story collections Flight Paths of the Emperor and On earth as it is, while his poetry collections include The Ecstasy of Skeptics and The Address Book.

His work has been translated into nine languages, internationally anthologized and nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Journey Prize and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award. He has also won the Lampert Award, the Petra Kenney Prize, the Air Canada Award and gold medals for fiction and for poetry in the National Magazine Awards. In 2002/03 he was the writer-in-residence at Concordia University; in 2004 he was the Massey College writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. He lives with his family in Kingston, Ontario.

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