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On an expedition in the Canadian Rockies at the end of the nineteenth century, Dr Edward Byrne slips and falls almost 60 feet into a crevasse on the Arcturus Glacier. While trapped, hanging upside down and wary that the slightest movement could send him plunging deeper into the abyss, Byrne notices a mysterious winged figure embedded in the ice wall. The vision shakes his sanity, and after his recovery continues to haunt him until he abandons his fiancee and his medical practice in England and returns to a lonely vigil in a shack near the spot on the ice where he almost lost his life. His spirit trapped, he seeks the truth by questioning closely the strange characters that cross his path and meticulously recording the advance and decline of the myths and legends of an early settlement and is transformed by the coming of the railroad into a thriving tourist centre - with an impact as far away as the battlefields for the First World War.
This first novel by Canadian Wharton, borrows something of the mystery and icy obsessiveness of Peter HYeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow, the bleak hallucinatory vision of William Vollman's The Ice Shirt and a cast of haunted characters reminiscent of Josephine Hart's Damage. The result is a bit of a pastiche of styles and subjects of recent popular books (there's even evidence of an angel). But Wharton is a competent writer and this is likely to be strong on sales, even if it's not long on inventiveness. In 1898, Doctor Edward Byrne leaves England for an expedition to the Arcturus glacier. A fall into a crevasse hints at the magic of the glacier, and his subsequent convalescence in the "town" of Jasper clinches it. Byrne becomes increasingly tied to the glacier, not only bivouacking on a nunatak or rognon but obsessively describing it and studying it. As one Jasper resident says of his work on glaciers, "I thought he was the one man on earth who bothered that much with them, that this science was his alone, that he had invented it. Arcturology. The science of being distant, and receding a little every year." As the glacier recedes, it reveals new objects, some transformed beyond recognition by its passing. Time does the same thing for characters in the story, absorbing some only to spit them up later in another form, dragging others under forever. Wharton has a fine sense of description, dialogue that is as spare as the landscape and a subtle hand with narrative. But underlying it all is an old-world sense of awe (think Burke, Byron, Shelley) that allows this spare novel to transcend its limitations.