Thomas Wharton (NeWest Press, 1995)
275 pp. First reading.
Posted 5 March 2007.
Icefields was Thomas Wharton’s first novel, and when it appeared a decade ago it caught the attention of the Canadian literary establishment. The young Alberta writer was honoured with an armful of awards, though I confess that at the time the book passed beneath (or above?) my radar. I’m glad to have now caught up with it.
It begins matter-of-factly enough. “At a quarter past three in the afternoon, on August 17, 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne slipped on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies and slid into a crevasse.” Byrne was quickly rescued, but not before he saw, or dreamed that he saw, the mighty form of an angel encased deep in the ice, wings outstretched. Byrne tells no one of his vision, but it becomes the seed out of which the rest of the story grows, the tether that keeps Byrne tied to the glacier for the rest of his life.
It is a splendid premise for a novel. Curiously, Wharton chooses not to pursue the angelic theme very assiduously. One might think that such an experience could flower into a religious ardour, or at least a spiritual quest; one might expect to find Byrne huddled by candlelight over the calm expositions of the Angelic Doctor; one might hope to find him taking a stone for his pillow in imitation of those favoured with angelic visions in the past; one might fear to find him perched feverishly over Milton’s account of the terrible fall of Lucifer, or of Dante’s ice-encased Accuser. But no — Byrne never develops any specifically angelic interests. The angel serves only as an anchor, a hazy initial vision of power and glorious mystery that casts a shadowy wing over a human life. I suppose that considered simply as such, it serves the role admirably well.
Byrne is a lonely soul, cold and distant. Near the glacier’s terminus the village of Jasper – a name derived from J’espere, says one of the characters – is taking shape, but he remains inwardly detached from that activity. His focus becomes the glacier itself. By the novel’s end he is living alone in a small hut on the ice, tracing the slow progress of the glacier as it flows down the mountain, calculating the position of the buried form he had seen so many years before, hoping perhaps to see it spill out onto the rocks one day.
Like the setting itself, Wharton’s prose is crisp and cool. The story is told quietly, with a minimum of fuss. There is a consistent simplicity in his sentence structures that lends a welcome clarity to the writing. Sometimes the simplicity threatens to overwhelm the sense, and the writing lapses into sentence fragments. Needing no subject. He also chooses to write significant portions of the book in the present tense, which I find affected and distracting. Occasionally he relies on that Timothy-Findlian convention of expressing the character’s inner thoughts in italics. These are all irritating practices that I seem to encounter only in Canadian literature, and I am wishing they would go away. Far.
The emotional coolness of the protagonist and the prose produces a certain muted tone in the drama. There is a dreamy quality that permeates the entire story. If it were a film, I have the feeling that it would be shot in soft focus, and that the camera would be constantly panning across scenes, never resting on any one feature long enough for it to become clearly delineated. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does risk sacrificing the reader’s emotional engagement with the characters. In my case I confess that I had trouble staying aboard. Happily, Wharton finds a delightful way to wrap the story up on the last page, bringing things to a close in a very satisfying way.