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The Nature of Ice by Robyn Mundy

The Nature of Ice is the debut novel from Australian writer Robyn Mundy, who wrote it, rather impressively, as part of a PhD in Writing.

It’s set in the icy wilds of Antarctica and juxtaposes two narratives – one set in 1912 and one in the present day, both of which have love stories, or love stories of a sort, at their centre.

The 1912 story focuses on the real-life expedition of the famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, who sets out to map Antarctica and leaves behind his fiancée Paquita – throughout the book their letters to each other go back and forwards, and we read them (real archived documents) – but the relationship is put under great stress by the challenges of Mawson’s expedition (he loses all his men, and is forced to spend another year in Antarctica, making for a three-year separation from Paquita).

The alternate narrative is the fictional part, focusing on Freya, an Australian photographer in a troubled marriage who goes to work for a season in Antarctica, where she meets Chad and a connection forms that makes Freya start to question whether she wants to return to her husband Marcus, who is painted as a pretty ghastly character.

Mundy is very clever in how she balances the two storylines – the challenge with a novel that does this is maintaining the reader’s interest between the two stories and ensuring that they don’t become more engaged with one than the other – that one story is factual and one fictional helps, and she also keeps the chapters quite tightly written so you’re frequently jumping back and forth between the two – you’re always looking forward to the next stage.

This book is exquisitely researched – Mundy drew on a lot of primary sources and archival documents in putting it together, and she thanks a whole stream of experts in her acknowledgements – she even traveled to Antarctica to work as a field assistant

You can’t fault her research and fact-checking, and her fleshing out of the base sources in the Mawson part of the story, filling in conversations between the men and the thoughts Mawson would have had, is what makes that story so compelling and engaging.

It is an extraordinary book that will resonate with anyone captivated by Antarctica – her descriptions of the wildlife and landscape, and the harshness of the environment, particularly for the early explorers, are really breathtaking.

In many ways it’s a biography, an historical novel and a couple of love stories all rolled up in a truly unique setting – I recommend it highly.

This review previously appeared on Coast.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

Published by Allen & Unwin