Occasionally, during the reading of Ice you’ll need to pause and run a cool piece of ice across your brow, as this is a fever of a novel. There are two storylines which bisect neatly, running across the timeless trajectory of lost love. The one which opens the book takes place in the 1880s, and follows the development of Malcolm McEacharn, a real life explorer/businessman who, in collaboration with his friend Andrew McIlwraith brings an iceberg to Sydney. At this point in the novel the only hint that we have of a second story is the odd interjection of the narrator to someone named Beatrice, referring to the dinner party we’re immersed in as something from the past.
Later, the second story becomes clear. Set in modern day (21st Century) Sydney, the narrator is Rowan Doyle, and his wife Beatrice, a biographer, lies in a coma. It is Beatrice’s biography of Malcolm McEacharn that Rowan is finishing, and his story and Malcolm’s develop an odd parallel as Rowan begins to read his work to his comatose wife, willing her to wake up and correct him.
The narrative structure is relatively complex, with an extraordinary number of links between the two stories, and indeed between the reader and the characters, giving it a strong post-modern quality. At the same time, both stories are linear and simple, so that it’s easy to read this book as both an historical fiction, and a modern day realist tragedy. That Louis Nowra manages this balance in a way that is seamless to the reader, without impacting on the fictive truths of either story, is credit to his great skill as a novelist. The historical context of Malcolm’s story is fascinating, and very well researched. The reader becomes engrossed in the present tense of Malcolm's affair, the intensity of his loss, and the odd co-mingling of his growing hunger for what he’s lost, as well as his hunger for success and power.
Despite the magical realism that underlies Malcolm’s story, there is enough verisimilitude to encourage the reader to do his or her own research. Malcolm traverses very real settings, from the evocative Yorkshire town of Goathland (used as the setting for Harry Potter films, and the Heartbeat TV series), to Glasgow, the streets of London, Queensland, Japan, Sydney, Melbourne, and Antarctica, all of which are described poetically, with original metaphor enriching the beauty of the scenery:
In the mornings a delicate lacework of ice had settled firmly on the decks and masts, and when the dawn broke it was as if the ship had been constructed of diamonds during the night. In wild weather spray rose from the sides of the vessel into tall columns of white mist that fell onto the deck, covering it with a silvery veil. (100)
Malcolm does more than bring ice to Sydney. He also brings refrigerated meat from Australia to London, electricity to Melbourne, and order to the Tokyo electric tram system. He's a man of science and technology, able to make a locomotive go, and so interested in biology that he amasses the biggest collection of foetuses and embryos in Australia. But he's also haunted and obsessed by his first wife's death, so much so that he temporarily gives himself up to the occult and slowly slides towards a kind of fevered madness that also begins to affect the narrator as both stories progress. As we learn more about why the modern day Beatrice is in a coma the stories begin to parallel one another. One of the key links is the ice which pervades the story, not only in the form of the iceberg that opens the novel, but also ice the drug, ice as refrigeration and a symbol for modernity, and the more theoretical notion of being frozen; arrested; put on hold:
Not a day goes past when there aren't newspaper articles about global warming, melting ice caps, hundreds of icebergs moving relentlessly towards New Zealand and about bodies that have lain in ice for decades, even centuries, but are now emerging from their graves and which confirm what is in this book… (320)
The real ice and metaphorical ice begin to blur, just as the real history and the fictive history; the real Ann and the progression of fictive Anns begin to blur. This is where the story becomes something more than simply a good historical tale. It's a story of love and loss, and the ephemeral nature of happiness. The story traverses a wide terrain, taking in, among other things, the seamy underbelly of a timelessly drug-riddled Sydney, a fancy dinner with Queen Victoria, or the outrageous excesses of an icy battlefield training dome in Imperial Japan. The minor characters are also well drawn, from the flamboyant inventor dandy Eugene Nicolle, the wild lovestruck psychic Elise, or the well endowed drunkard (mostly on the alcohol used to preserve specimens) Ford.
There's a Dickensian grandeur to Ice which is made all the more powerful by the way in which Nowra twists time's arrow. Those reading this solely as an historical fiction may be made uncomfortable by the way in which the reader is drawn into the story, placed in the role of the unconscious Beatrice; as silent confident. For those of us who like our fiction as rich, complex, and painful as possible, Ice is a tremendous story, and one which begs to be read more than once.
By Louis Nowra
Allen & Unwin
Paperback, ISBN: 9781741754834, Nov 2008, 336pgs