Afterlands – Steven Heighton ( Hamish Hamilton 2006)


Written by Canadian author and poet this focuses upon a true life incident from 1872 when The Polaris, a steamer ship, which whilst on a polar expedition found itself enountering  difficulties in the Arctic Seas and ended up leaving a group stranded upon an ice floe.  This group comprised of an American lieutenant, various crew members of different nationalities (mainly German) and two Inuit families.

It is a battle for survival.  The group have meagre rations and need to hunt seals and all the while their home is diminishing in size as they drift along on the open sea, hoping for rescue or land.

This is a novel  in three parts.  We begin with the aftermath when one of the Inuit children, Punnie, has become a child virtuoso pianist.  The family is adapting to life in America but the shadow of their Arctic expedition looms over them and cannot let them go.  This leads into the second and most successful section of the novel which is the time on the ice.  Punnie’s mother, Tukulito, becomes a source of obsession for Lieutenant Tyson who sleeps snuggled up to her and her husband at night to keep warm.  Meanwhile Kruger, a German crewman, is believed by the others to be helping himself from their stores.  This section is brutal, relating the struggles of their everyday existence from various viewpoints.  This is an abandoned group of people who throughout it all are fighting to maintain their national identity and wary of others from different countries.  This theme of nationalism feels chillingly relevant 144 years later.

We are informed that Tyson has produced a record of these events and has spent the years afterwards promoting it and giving talks about his publication.  The details of this book have made it difficult for Kruger to function in society, so he withdraws and relocates to Mexico.  This is the basis for the third section of the novel where Kruger gets involved in local hostilities.  For me the third section feels very different to the tone of the rest of the book and apart from his yearning for Tukulito does not  feel as good a fit.

There is no doubt that Heighton has a strong poetic sensibility.  The structure and lyrical feel of the novel does not always give the reader an easy ride. I rather think that this might be a book that might benefit from a re-read, or a slow savoured read, but apart from the second section (where the hostility and brutality of the environment was almost too much for me) I wasn’t quite as involved as I might have hoped.


Afterlands was published in 2006 by Hamish Hamilton

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