In early 20th century Britain, heroic women risked their lives to win voting rights, and men defied death by launching expeditions to the Antarctic. On the surface, these historic struggles don't appear to have much in common, yet Henriette Lazaridis, author of "The Clover House," seamlessly links them in "Terra Nova," a literary novel that highlights their common denominator: how far men and women will go to achieve their goals.
Three characters connect these divergent plot lines: Viola Colfax, an ambitious photojournalist who wants to create photos that "astonish," and two polar explorers: her husband, Edward Heywoud, and photographer James Watts.
In both story lines, hunger is center stage. Imprisoned suffragettes starved themselves to bring attention to their cause, and on a monthslong trek from England to the South Pole that Lazaridis dramatically chronicles, food runs low and drastic measures are taken to feed body and spirit in the daunting "monster land of snow and ice."
The cravings aren't just physical. Edward, James and Viola hunger for respect and recognition.
The men's struggle to reach the South Pole before a competing Norwegian team is a story teeming with sensational descriptions of unimaginable cold, where earlobes and toes freeze solid and "eyelids tap together" when the men blink. The novel takes its title from the name of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition. He lost a race to the pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1912 and subsequently lost his life.
Yet it's Viola's artistry and hunger for greatness that feels like the novel's bigger and more courageous struggle. Wanting to use her talents to promote the suffragette movement as well as her career, she photographs the emaciated hunger strikers in tableaux that emulate classical nude paintings including those by Botticelli, Titian and Manet. She stages an exhibition of her photographs believing she has captured on film a political power in the women not seen in the iconic paintings which tended to objectify and sexualize them.
Both plot lines are strong enough to stand alone as intriguing works of historical fiction. Lazaridis chooses to blend the two, and the characters collide in surprising ways after the men return to England. Their reaction to Viola's exhibition and her discovery of deceptions linked to their expedition allow Lazaridis to compare and contrast her characters' moral convictions.
Yet the characters aren't created equally. Viola and the suffragettes are more richly developed. The explorers' bravery is never in doubt, but we only get to know them through the stereotypical masculine behaviors of the time. Britain cheered the men as they trudged toward the South Pole. Women pressing for the vote needed no one's approval as they marched toward the future.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin, Texas.
By: Henriette Lazaridis.
Publisher: Pegasus, 304 pages, $25.95.