What do we stand to lose in a world without ice? A decade ago, novelist and short story writer Jean McNeil spent a year as writer in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, and four months on the world’s most enigmatic continent — Antarctica. Access to the Antarctic remains largely reserved for scientists, and it is the only piece of earth which is nobody’s country. Ice Diaries is the story of McNeil’s years spent in ice, not only in the Antarctic but her subsequent travels in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, culminating in a strange event in Cape Town, South Africa, where she journeyed to make what was to be her final trip to the southernmost continent.
In the spirit of the diaries of Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, McNeil mixes travelogue, popular science and memoir to examine the history of our fascination with ice. In entering this world, McNeil unexpectedly finds herself confronting her own upbringing in the Maritimes, the lifelong effects of growing up in a cold place, and how the climates of childhood frame our emotional thermodynamics for life. Ice Diaries is a haunting story of the relationship between beauty and terror, loss and abandonment, transformation and triumph.
A desolate polar landscape comes to life in this memorable book chronicling McNeil's (Private View) period as writer-in-residence for the British Antarctic Survey, focusing on her four months in Antarctica. Having signed on to witness scientific research, McNeil struggles with her own insignificance in Antarctica's vastness. This is not a traditional explorer's diary, but rather, as McNeil explains, "an exploration of an inner as much as an outer landscape." McNeil uses this memoir to delve into climate change concerns and her own past, including some childhood trauma. When the author allows herself to roam freely in her experiences, the book is absorbing. Its fractured structure and time line not "a single line, a narrative" but rather "a spiral" can be jarring for the reader, as reference points and dates are not always clear. The book also lacks a traditional conclusion, but this may be a purposeful and maddening acknowledgment that for both personal trials and the greater environmental problems plaguing the earth, no satisfactory solutions have yet to be discovered. Overall, the book succeeds in bringing the issues of climate change out of the scientific and into the literary world, elegantly weaving factual information into a language more broadly understood.