And yet, Fiennes pushes the narrative forward at a good pace, and his narration becomes especially lively as he describes the true grind of snow and ice. The clichés disappear and are replaced by the hard-won descriptions of struggle, perseverance and initiative that only someone who has lived through such hostile conditions can know.
I wish Fiennes had done more of these comparisons. The examples used are torn from the order of a life of opposing one’s body to what seems unbearable. Therefore, while the story of Shackleton’s life unfolds in a linear fashion, it is difficult to get a sense of Fiennes’ own journey. It might be a different book, but their life story told side by side would make for interesting reading, exploring both similarities and differences.
As things stand, the comparisons are the book’s most original contribution. While in some cases they might seem a bit superfluous – there simply to introduce a connection – at best they offer genuine insight. For example, Fiennes compares the 24-pound weight loss Shackleton suffered during his failed attempt to reach the South Pole on the Nimrod Expedition with his own 55-pound weight loss after hauling sleds for 94 days in Antarctica. He notes that stress may have been responsible for the near-fatal heart attack he suffered 10 years later, and he posits whether Shackleton’s equally extreme weight loss under equally extreme conditions requiring equally extreme exertion may also have affected Shackleton’s heart.
One hundred years ago, in the early hours of January 5, 1922, while aboard his ship at South Georgia, Antarctica, Shackleton died, aged 47, most likely of a heart attack. .
While researching my own recent book, I visited Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, from which he made his unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole. I was there to interrogate the hut, to see if I could deduce anything from the men who had used it over a century ago. There’s something about Shackleton that still lingers, and it has less to do with the discarded socks, rusty cans of custard powder and empty reindeer sleeping bags than the sense of camaraderie that still permeates the quarters of open-plan living. Shackleton, as Fiennes shows, was an Everyman hero in an era of disciplined and heroic Antarctic exploration; and, unlike flan powder, its history remains as exceptional and astounding today.
In the end, unlike his polar expeditions, this book by Fiennes does not set any records, whether pure or not. Its appeal lies in its perspective: reading about an extreme polar superstar from the perspective of another. The book is not a 10 like the man, but that hardly matters. For anyone passionate about polar exploration, this is a must read.