JESSE BLACKADDER Chasing the Light. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
Ingrid Christensen has lived the last twenty years waiting for her husband, Lars, to make good on his promise to take her to Antarctica. In that time, Ingrid has given birth to six children and Lars has built a whaling empire. Finally, in 1931, Ingrid convinces Lars to take her with him when he sails to the Southern Ocean to oversee the factory ships of his whaling business. But Lars will not let Ingrid be the sole woman on his ship, the Thorshavn.
For two years, Mathilde Wegger has been frozen with grief for her dead husband. She has survived only by taking care of her two children, but has begun to realise this solace is under threat from her parents-in-law, who she believes want to raise her children as their own. When Ingrid Christensen invites Mathilde to journey with her to Antarctica – and her parents-in-law encourage her to accept the invitation – Mathilde reluctantly agrees, though she holds no hope the journey will offer her the respite they promise.
Lillemor Rachlew is ambitious. She longs to make her mark on the world, and while she volunteers in the slums of London, she’s working towards a greater destiny: visiting Antarctica. Fascinated by the wild southern continent, she had once applied to journey with Douglas Mawson on his historic voyage, only to be disappointed and enraged by his rejection. When Lillemor learns of the Christensens’ expedition, she contrives – with the help of her husband, Anton – to go with them.
Chasing the Light is a fascinating fictionalised account of the first women to land on Antarctica. In Jesse Blackadder’s skilled hands, Ingrid, Lillemor and Mathilde come to life as complex, layered characters. These are women who need more than a pioneering spirit to make their dreams come true: they must scheme, manipulate and inveigle to be given a fraction of the chances that the men around them accept as their birthright.
Blackadder’s careful use of language and sparse writing style suits the story perfectly. She effortlessly recreates the endless, crisp openness of the sea and the stuffy claustrophobia of the ship’s cabins, and evocatively renders the strain of being civil to strangers one might otherwise not associate with. The novel’s measured phrasing reveals the concealed hostility among those on the ship, and exposes the futility of their fighting when they must rely on each other to survive in such a harsh environment.
The realities of whaling practices in the early 20th century are not glossed over, and the restraint of the writing highlights their horror. The accounts of whale hunting and the subsequent processing of the carcasses are not sensationalised, and it is a credit to Blackadder’s skill that she does not allow more modern views on whaling practices to influence the story; despite the shock and concern various characters feel when they encounter the factory ships, they accept that this is how the industry works and that they profit from the suffering of these animals. This is not to say there isn’t an environmental theme to Chasing the Light – a nascent concern for over-fishing and the extinction of popular species is woven into the narrative through various characters’ points of view. Ingrid, in particular, grows anxious about what her husband’s company does. There is a melancholy scene in which she listens to whales singing through the hull of the ship:
The hull was cold against her ear. For a long time, silence. Then, at the edge of Ingrid’s hearing, a moan. She pulled back and as she broke contact with the hull, the sound almost disappeared. She shook her head slightly, and then pressed her ear back to the metal. The sound was distinct, somehow transmitted through the water and into the ship itself. It was a high wail, haunting and oddly melodic, finishing on a rising note, followed by a deep rumbling.
But, coupled with the memory of what she has seen on the factory ship, Ingrid is frightened by what she hears: ‘… it sounded as if some great leviathan of the sea waited below them, planning revenge’.
Blackadder revels in showing us the subtle ruthlessness of the women through their endless manoeuvrings: they create alliances and break them, seek out weaknesses to exploit, make promises they have no intention of keeping. Each knows the power the men have over her, and comes to learn the power she can have over men, if she chooses to wield it. Lillemor is the most skilled, turning Ingrid and Mathilde against each other and seeking to influence the decisions of Lars Christensen and his captains, Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen and Harald Horntvedt. But in her desperation to get what she wants, Lillemor inadvertently teaches Mathilde and Ingrid to become better manipulators, threatening her own dream further. As the voyage progresses, it becomes clear that Mathilde wants only to be allowed to be her own person, but this does not stop her using what power she has to get in the way of Ingrid’s and Lillemor’s ambitions as revenge for the injuries they cause her.
Chasing the Light beautifully recounts the long-forgotten stories of a trio of determined Norwegian women, adventurers despite the obstacles placed in their paths. It gives passionate voices to Ingrid, Lillemor and Mathilde, who return from their journey different people, stronger and more determined, changed by a world few of their contemporaries would ever see.
Jesse Blackadder Chasing the Light, Fourth Estate, 2013, 432pp, PB, $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor in Sydney.
See an interview with Jesse Blackadder here.
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