Giller Shortlist: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

The title for Minds of Winter comes from The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, which I thought was fitting. Most of the characters in this book are drawn to the polar regions of the world. No sooner have they gotten back from an expedition and they’re off again, despite the very real dangers. Many press on even after near-death experiences. I can’t help but admire them, and is perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy reading about them.

Minds of Winter is filled with information on polar exploration; the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The amount of research must have been incredible. The book is divided up into sections, starting with Sir John Franklin and Captain Crozier in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, and ending with Captain Hugh Morgan at an airforce base on Baffin Island in the 1950s. Other non-fcitional characters include Charles Francis HallJoseph Bellot, Robert Scott, Lawrence Oates, Roald Amundsen, and Cecil Meares. And of course the Mad Trapper of Rat River, “Albert Johnson”. There’s also a chapter narrated by Ipiirviq/Ebierbing/”Eskimo Joe”, a widely traveled Inuit guide and explorer.

Interspersed with the historical accounts of the explorers is a present day thread. Nelson and Fay have come to Inuvik, NWT for different reasons; Nelson to visit his brother, and Fay to look for clues about her vanished grandfather. They meet accidentally at the airport, and soon discover that there may be an historic connection between them.

I have no problem with Nelson and Fay’s part of the story. It definitely needs to be there. But I couldn’t help but feel like they were just tokens. As characters on their own, they weren’t interesting to me; they were only useful as ways of discovering new information. But I did enjoy reading about the setting of Inuvik and surrounding area. Take a look at this community greenhouse!

Each section of the book is fascinating and informative on its own (as well as the maps provided at the beginning of each), but together they make up part of an even more satisfying puzzle of a story. At times I found it hard to keep all the characters and story-lines straight, and often found myself flipping back to previous chapters. (I found it worked best to read each section without interruptions.) But it’s well worth it for readers who enjoy a challenging read, or who are interested in historical fiction.

Amundsen, who had dreamed all his life of claiming new lands for his new country, had been dreaming of something that did not exist. This was his last expedition, and he spent it sitting on a chair and staring out of a plastic window. Another first for Amundsen, thought Fay, turning away from the computer screen: that’s how we all do our exploring now.

While I was reading, two very different books kept coming to mind. The first, most obvious one, is The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. Barrett’s story takes place shortly after the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, when ship after ship were being sent to the Arctic to find clues/survivors/remains.

The second is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, the 2016 Giller Prize winner. Both books cover an impressive amount of material, and I’ve seen the words “scope” and “ambition” used to describe both. Also, in both books, the historical parts of the book are anchored by the thread from the present. However, Minds of Winter doesn’t pack the emotional punch that Thien’s book does. I didn’t feel as attached to O’Loughlin’s characters as I did to Thien’s. Minds of Winter feels more information-packed, and like putting together a puzzle. One that I’m still not sure I have figured out.

But Minds of Winter is a marvellous journey. It takes us to many out-of-the-way places on this earth. Here is a description of the town of Stromness, Orkney that I particularly like:

The little town of Stromness turns its back on the harbour from which it was born. Grey stone houses face a single long street, showing blind gables to the sea. Bewteen the houses, narrow alleys sneak down to the private piers and slips that are hidden behind them, as if the sea were a family secret which everyone knows but no one acknowledges.

And it brings to life the people who have risked their lives for the opportunity to increase our knowledge and expand our maps.

No one replied to him. And in that silence Bellot was seized by a queer kind of vertigo, an inward spinning and trembling. He saw at last that this journey might prove treacherous in ways he had not previously understood. Well, he would chart his islands carefully. He would check and recheck his instruments, take diligent temperatures and bearings, be doubly and trebly sure of his path by ship and boat and sledge. And he would resist in himself and in others that siren’s lure of empty fame, the lust to have one’s name attached to some cape or frozen sound. His journal would be his scientific Bible, his instruments his Redeemers. They would guide him through the dark.

Further Reading

Review at The Arctic Book Review:And so it is that the protagonist of this book, in one sense, is neither Nelson nor Fay nor any of the many far-faring men and women whose peregrinations perturb the incompletely-explored world — it is we ourselves. We are the ones who must struggle to render meaning, must weigh and measure the value of many lives, must chart our own course through the narrative labyrinth.”

Review at 108zen Books: “O’Loughlin’s vision of the scope of this topic is formidable and where it lacks – frustratingly – in depth, it does console with terrific prose. What may be unforgivable, depending on the level of sustain attention training the reader has, is his compulsive need to throw in everything, and the kitchen sink.

Review at The Irish Times: “The men pitch themselves against the sublime. The women wait. The men seek out loneliness; the women have pickets of solitude set about them.”

Review at the Quill & Quire: “O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery – or really several mysteries – without any solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided.”


35 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

      • Didi says:

        I’m glad to hear that. I’m going to make it a priority for next year. I think I’m going to make a huge list of books I’d like to read next year and tick them off one book at a time. I want to do a good cull and give away books that I won’t read or that I’ve read and don’t care to own. Trying to make space and be more reasonable about book buying. 😅

  1. buriedinprint says:

    One thing that I enjoyed about this one is the sense that he seems to want to bring the theme off the page for us, by forcing us to explore the situation he’s laid out for us as readers. Not everything is perfectly framed or linked and we are still asking questions, throughout and afterwards. I think that’s a very interesting way to approach the story from a writing perspective, although I can also see where it might be frustrating for readers who really want a tidy resolution and a sense of licksy-stampsy on the expedition of reading. I know I’ve mentioned to you that I had some trouble getting into this one, and I think you might have a point in saying that it requires some focus to settle into each of the scenes he paints; whether I was reading too many books at once or whether I was simply in another mood, the second-time-around stuck for me! Are you tempted by either of his other novels?

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad it stuck the second time through! I am tempted by his other books, especially Toploader. They both seem to have mixed reactions on GR, but usually those are the ones I’m curious about and often end up loving them. What about you?

  2. drlauratisdall says:

    This sounds really interesting – I’m fascinated by the exploration of both the far north and south. I don’t think I’ve picked it up yet for many of the reasons you note – it looks overlong and dense – but I might be able to overlook that if it’s bulked out by history.

    • Naomi says:

      There’s so much history. If you have an interest at all in polar exploration, then I think you’d like it! I don’t even think it’s too long – unless you’re not interested in the subject.

    • Naomi says:

      I have a feeling it won’t be long before this one makes its way over, if it hasn’t already. The author has pretty much lived in Ireland since the age of six.
      (This one might have been too heavy for your husband’s suitcase!)

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I had no idea there was such a large non-fiction element to this book, which makes me wonder what a unique choice this is for the Giller Prize. Oh well, I’m glad it was nominated anyway, we need a little diversity in the book choices in this award in particular 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It *is* still fiction, but the kind with lots of facts in it. 🙂
      And, yes, I love the diversity! I love picking up a book and not knowing exactly what I’m going to get. I can see how it might make choosing just one book that much harder, though. I would love to be a fly on the wall for the jury discussions!

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I was reminded of The Voyage of the Narwhal just by reading your review. Too bad that you didn’t feel the emotional punch while reading. It still sounds like something I would like to read as well. I am fascinated by people who have this drive to just pack up and go somewhere, for whatever reason, no matter how dangerous it is.

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t really miss the emotional punch… I just noticed that it wasn’t a strong presence. You don’t stay with any one character long enough to get emotionally attached to them. But it’s a good book for other reasons, and one I think you’d like!

      I’m fascinated by that drive, as well. I wonder if it’s because I don’t have it? Or if I have it buried deep somewhere inside me? (Which I find hard to believe!)

  5. Mom says:

    I read “Minds of Winter” a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I know some people don’t enjoy a lot of jumping about in time and place and this has lots of it, but it’s worth the effort (although I quite like the popping about, so perhaps a bit biased). Have recently requested new NF “Dead Reckoning: the untold story of the Northwest Passage” by Ken McGoogan, which may also interest others who liked “Minds of Winter”…

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    I would love to read more about the place but I always feel weird when non-fiction and fiction are mixed like this. It certainly sounds like an innovative work, anyway.

  7. Penny says:

    When do you guys pick the winner for the Shadow Giller Naomi?? And do you have in your mind the one you think should take the prize? (I think you’ve read them all now haven’t you?) I’m woefully ridiculously behind – I’ve read one – well from the shortlist. 😦 (It was this one – Minds of Winter – so I really can’t say anything or make any kind of prediction, but was wondering if you’re leaning towards one already…..November 20th seems so far away.)

    • Naomi says:

      I was thinking Nov. 20 suddenly seems very close! Probably because I’ve only read and reviewed 4. I just started “I Am a Truck” today – I was waiting for it to come through the library, but couldn’t wait any longer so bought it instead. Luckily it’s short!
      I find it tougher to choose a favourite this year than last, but Son of a Trickster is one, and Bellevue Square, and I Am A Truck will also be if it continues the way it’s going. Sorry, I’m not very definite… I have some thinking to do!
      We will pick the Shadow Giller a day or two before the real winner is announced.

  8. Penny says:

    I went out and bought I Am a Truck on the day the longlist was announced. My library has brought it in, but no worries really since I bought it for my Kobo and it didn’t break the bank or anything. 🙂 In some ways I think it would be kind of cool if I Am a Truck wins – just because it is such an unexpected addition to the long-and-shortlists! (Not that I’ve read it yet!)

    (But November 20th is much later in the month from when they usually announce the winner isn’t it? It is now only 5 days away! 🙂 🙂 )

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, it’s later this year. I think that’s why I felt like I had lots of time. But no worries – the book arrived yesterday and I finished it today. Working on the review right now (but procrastinating by answering a few comments!).
      I loved it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it win. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few of them win. I guess that’s a good thing!

  9. susan says:

    I’m on the fence about Minds of Winter. I liked Barrett’s book but this one sounds convoluted. I heard him read from it but wasn’t totally convinced. Amazed to hear Redhill won!

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