Remain calm. Stay in place. Make contact. Those are the rules, the instructions for survival that a young researcher recites during a blinding snowstorm. Thomas has come to Antarctica to update mapping data with fellow GPS specialist Luke, both first timers at the remote Station K. They’ve taken a recreational break for Thomas to use his new camera. Their guide, Robert “Doc” Wright, snowmobiled to a distant cliff to add photographic perspective within all that ice, snow, sea, and sky. The storm hits hard from the top of a glacier. Their radios falter. The ice where Thomas is standing breaks, and he’s drifting.
He shouldn’t have put down the radio. He shouldn’t have moved away from Luke. He shouldn’t have agreed with Doc’s idea about climbing Priestley Head just for the sake of a photograph.
Jon McGregor is an award-winning British novelist and short story writer. Lean Fall Stand is his new novel to be released later this month, the story of an Antarctic research expedition gone wrong and the far-reaching consequences. He fuels the tension with spare, intense sentences. Indeed, McGregor is a master when it comes to crafting cumulative power with calm, microscopic focus. An example is the way Doc makes us uneasy as McGregor, with casual strokes, illustrates an over-confident, experienced, old-school guide who admits to not doing everything by the book. He starts drinking early in the day and refuses to use the satellite phones.
As the storm rages, and Thomas, Luke, and Doc remain physically separated, Doc decides to ignore the rule to stay in place and return to base. While preparing to leave Priestley Head, something sharp hits him on the back of the neck. He doesn’t know what it is, and neither do we. Doc arrives safely at the hut, and here the prose changes to reflect chattering, nonsensical thinking, twisted words that fumble Doc’s meaning. He’s suffered a stroke.
His head felt wrong. There was no pain but a weakness. The feeling came and went. There were lights flashing on the radio but there was no sound. He poured a drink and emptied his glass. He rawed the rum numbness of his face. No. Rubbed. Rubbed the rum rawness. No. Radio. Something was rattling against the door. The light brightened and he went to the window. There was something he should. Something was wrong.
Research institute authorities try to piece together what happened after Doc returns to England. McGregor stops using Doc’s Antarctic nickname and reverts to “Robert” as he moves him, and us, into civilization, out of the remote winter world Doc thrives in. The authorities, hovering with inquiries, ask why the three traveled without satellite phones. Frank, Robert’s son, cautions his mother Anna to get an attorney, but Anna is overwhelmed. She’s now caretaking her husband through his daily functions. Robert can’t speak to explain what he wants, let alone explain what took place at Station K.
The narrative pace slows dramatically at this point. It feels sluggish, and disappointing, a let-down compared to the storm’s thriller high; however, this is not a narrative fault. McGregor isn’t writing to solve a mystery but to explore themes of sacrifice and self-importance, first on the expedition and now with caretaking. The storyline subsides in its verve, and yet, it hits the mark of this author’s signature talent in capturing the ripple effect of a tragic event: Anna feeling ill-equipped, everything taking forever, her head spinning.
She had shopping to do. The back door was jammed shut. The gutters were blocked. She didn’t know how long Sara was planning to stay. She had missed two review meetings at work, and her head of department was leaving messages on the home phone.
Robert improves in his therapy sessions. He’s able to express what happened by creative communication methods learned in speech therapy. We find out the fates of Luke and Thomas, but there are some questions left unanswered. They feel right to be left untouched because, in some tragic circumstances, nothing really can be said.
Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor is published by Catapult. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM broadcasting throughout central Ohio.