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All the White Spaces


All the White Spaces

Like all armchair Antarctic fanatics, I was thrilled by the recent discovery of the wreck of the Endurance. This mighty ship, crushed by pack ice, was abandoned in 1915 by famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men --- but not before its exact geographical location was noted.

Those early 20th-century explorers documented everything, partly because their voyages were seen as scientific undertakings, and partly because they were engaged in what might be history-making enterprises. They kept journals; they took photographs; they wrote books: Even when they did not survive, sometimes their paperwork did. Ally Wilkes --- who describes herself as living “with far too many books about Antarctica” --- has made abundant use of this material in her first novel, ALL THE WHITE SPACES. Indeed, her epigraph is a quote from Shackleton’s 1909 book, THE HEART OF THE ANTARCTIC.

Yet Shackleton’s reputation today rests not on successful forays into the southernmost continent, but on a striking gift for leadership. After the Endurance went down, he guided his men safely home without a single life lost.

The same cannot be said for James “Australis” Randall, Wilkes’ fictitious Shackleton-like figure. He is obsessive and driven, a sort of Ahab of the Antarctic. As the book begins, it is 1918, the start of another expedition to the bottom of the world, and we are in the company of 18-year-old Jonathan Morgan, a stowaway on Randall’s vessel, the Fortitude.

"The best parts of ALL THE WHITE SPACES are toward the end, the gripping final battle between humans and evil spirits in an environment where survival is already a life-or-death struggle."

It turns out (this is no spoiler; we know the truth on page four) that Morgan’s name is actually Josephine, Jo for short. Jo has never felt that he (I’ll use the pronoun appropriate to his chosen gender) belonged in the girlish bedroom of “chintz and lace” prescribed by his mother. He is going to the Antarctic under Randall because that was the dream of his two older brothers, Rufus and Francis, who were killed in France just as World War I was ending. Helping him is 21-year-old Harry Cooper, the brothers’ best friend.

Predictably, Jo’s presence on the ship is discovered. Innate courage and a certain flair for climbing the rigging win him the approval of Randall, and he glories in his acceptance by the crew. Harry, more of a brooding, depressive type, seems out of sorts from the first, a victim of the post-traumatic stress suffered by so many soldiers after the war.

When Randall’s men, like Shackleton’s, are forced to abandon ship and take to the ice, it becomes apparent that they are facing not only the hazards of the oncoming, lightless Antarctic winter, but also a host of malign supernatural forces. Often these angry spirits combine painful evocations of the war with seductive invitations for the men to attack each other, run off into a blizzard or kill themselves outright.

Crammed together in huts left empty by an earlier German party whose fate is unknown, what was once a closely knit crew falls apart. Some try to return to the ship. Others hunt for survivors who might need help. Conflicts over leadership rage. Secrets emerge. As in Agatha Christie’s celebrated murder mystery, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, the men are picked off one by one.

Wilkes, in short, has taken on an ambitious three-strand project for her first venture into fiction (she was a barrister in her previous life): a tale of perilous exploration, a paranormal horror story that mirrors the real-life terrors of trench warfare, and a challenge to gender conventions.

She pulls off the exploration aspect best, with authentic details right down to Jo’s Burberry tunic and Jaeger wool underwear. The claustrophobic, smelly atmosphere below decks on the ship feels real, as do the abandoned, semi-civilized huts, complete with glass windows and a chess set. And the chilly beauty of the landscape draws a lovely eloquence from Jo. On the aurora: “The South had taken off her mask at last: the eastern sky was on fire. The mountains wore crowns of red flames, shimmering and flickering like beacons in the night.”

Wilkes builds up considerable suspense around the spooky entities haunting the expedition. We get the first intimations of danger when Jo sees spectral figures on the ship; later, these take on the guise of his beloved brothers, bidding him follow them into death. Nearly all the crew members fought in World War I, and the monsters torture them with memories of the Western Front: the mud, the rats, the stench, the constant shelling, the “forest of barbed wire” on which soldiers were caught, leaving them prey to German guns.

Unfortunately, Wilkes’ characters aren’t quite on the level of the setting or plot. If she hadn’t put a list of crew members at the beginning of ALL THE WHITE SPACES, I wouldn’t have had a clue who was who. The exceptions, beyond Jo himself, are Harry, Randall and James Tarlington, the chief scientific officer and a conscientious objector during the war (the others consider him a coward and suspect him of being a German spy). To me, this thorny loner is the most distinctive character in the novel; he is the least predictable and, in the end, the kindest.

Tarlington comes through more clearly than Jo himself, who remains thinly sketched, particularly when it comes to ambiguities of gender. Having been raised female in the early 20th century, when there were enormously restrictive conventions regarding clothing and behavior, he must have had difficulties adapting to a radically new identity. Yet I got no sense of that, nor of much anxiety about the possibility of exposure (what about menstruation, for example?). About 40 pages from the end, there is a single paragraph in which Jo recounts his efforts to pass as a young man --- keeping his voice low, pretending to shave. But I didn’t get much real insight into how it might feel to be born into the wrong body, or its ramifications. Wilkes, disappointingly, seems to have decided to keep that a minor theme in what is basically an adventure/horror novel.

The best parts of ALL THE WHITE SPACES are toward the end, the gripping final battle between humans and evil spirits in an environment where survival is already a life-or-death struggle. In the process, two deeply rooted secrets --- the reasons for Harry’s unquiet psyche and a big reveal about Tarlington’s background --- come to light. More important, Jo begins to recognize his own strength and bravery. He no longer has to imitate his brothers. He has become his own man.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on April 1, 2022

All the White Spaces
by Ally Wilkes