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Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness

This astonishing YA novel has been around for some time (published by Oxford in 2005), but I only recently discovered it. It's the kind of book that you read quickly to find out what happens because the main plot is a rip-roaring adventure story, but then immediately want to go back and reread because it is so thoughtful and clever and twisty.

This is how The White Darkness opens:

I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now - which is ridiculous, since he's been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I'll be dead, too, and then the age difference won't matter.

Titus Oates was one of the more heroic members of Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole; one night, when the party was already running out of food, he told the others that he was just going out for a cigarette and never came back. Sym Wates is a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who has had a lifelong obsession with the Antarctic and has a very real relationship with Oates going on in her head. As the novel opens, she is in Paris, in the somewhat dubious care of a "family friend" who effectively abducts her and takes her with him on a trip to the Antarctic. Things go sideways very quickly, and we are swept into a quest in which Sym's knowledge of Scott's polar expedition becomes crucial for her own survival.

The title, by the way, refers to the blinding whiteness of the Arctic or Antarctic. It also seems to have some relationship to madness, and to a sense of loss of identity that comes with the experience of the Romantic Sublime:
When the White Darkness sets in, it’s such a kindness. All shadows disappear - the sky, the ground - leaving nothing but a milky, trembling nothingness. It’s a sweet light, a pleasant light, like lying under a sheet on a summer morning: the presence of light without any of the usual complications - like being able to see. Perfect ignorance was like this, I remember: a feeling of enlightenment without ever quite grasping what was going on.

The main "adventure" plot is pretty incredible and almost surreal; I'm not sure we are meant to believe in it, except perhaps as a metaphor. A great deal of this truly remarkable book is, in the great tradition of metafiction, about knowledge, imagination, story-telling.
Maybe it never happened at all, in fact. Any of it.
“Bet it only ever happened in her head,” I whisper gloatingly to Titus.
“Only?” says Titus sharply, and tramps off for a cigarette.

After all, the epigram is Milton: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Get the idea?

But don't get the impression that this book is all clever-clever and literary sleight-of-hand. Not at all. There are many delights here: "Uncle" Victor is a memorable villain driven by obsessive megalomania, there are a couple of hints at romance, a gripping adventure, whether you believe it or not. Above all, Sym is a completely believable and very likeable heroine, whose dry, self-aware voice, full of dead-pan humour, engages you from the beginning and makes you root for her to the end.

Geraldine McCaughrean is one of the most adventurous writers in the children's/YA field today, producing novels that explore extremely complex and interesting epistemological themes. I think she probably has a corner on the "YA metafiction" market, if there is such a thing. I remember being impressed by A Pack of Lies many years ago, but don't remember it very well - this makes me want to re-read it and more of her work. Also, if anyone has any recommendations for other metafictional YA works, if such exist at all, I'd be interested to hear about them (NOT Cornelia Funke, please - been there, read that, not terribly impressed).

Overall, this is one of the best novels, YA or otherwise, I've read for some time, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Tags: books, mccaughrean, reading, review

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