I was contacted by Open Road Media and received a copy of this book. I read two other Bainbridge novels which I enjoyed (links below). I thought I might as well take the opportunity to receive a book I was likely to enjoy. This time I was slightly less vested in the characters and maybe that took away from it for me a bit.
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
Other books by Bainbridge reviewed on this blog:
Summary from Goodreads:
In this stunning novel, award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge offers a fictionalized account of the doomed Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott in 1912. At once hair-raising and beautiful, here is an astonishing tale of misguided courage and human endurance. The Birthday Boys of the title are Scott and four members of his team, each of whom narrates a section of the book. As the story progresses the reader discovers that these men may not be reliable reporters. Their cocky optimism is both ghastly and dangerous. Brought up to despise professional expertise, their enterprise is lunatic, amateur and gentlemanly. Beryl Bainbridge makes it hauntingly clear: the men are fatally doomed in their bravery, the very stuff of heroes. Captain Scott’s poignant trek becomes, in this remarkable novel, a historical event which prefigures the terrible new world dawning in Europe. It was an inept rehearsal for the carnage of the first world war, the ultimate challenge for the arrogant generals who shared Scott’s skewed notion of courage that led men qualmlessly into harm’s way.
I thought this book was a great fictionalization of an important historical event, something Bainbridge does amazingly well. I knew nothing of the 1912 expedition and maybe that’s because I’m an American and our education focused on who got to the moon first because winning is most important in history, right? Moving past that political tirade, I think the biggest distraction in this novel was the changing points of view. Each person seemed to have a strong relationship with one or two other members and their account would focus on those people and seemed to ignore everyone else so when we switched to another head, I had a hard time remembering who the now-important side characters were. They seemed to have different personalities in different points of view which was interesting but confusing at the same time. It made it hard to remember the characters.
I thought it was really admirable how the men kept moving toward the pole and followed Captain Scott when things seemed so bad. It seems a dedication I’m not sure many people would show today to a cause that seemed so unreachable and defeated. I’m not sure how much of their bravery was fictionalized and how much was historically recorded but Bainbridge painted these men in a rosy light.
I liked the first section, narrated by Taff Evans, best. He was more relatable than the more senior members of the expedition and it made his account easier to read. I could also relate to leaving like Evans was leaving his wife and could relate to the sadness he felt. Though he was less senior, he had a lot more experience than some and his flashbacks and advice gave the novel a good start.
I sympathized most with Titus. At the end when he wanted to push on with everyone else but also wanted to die, I could relate to his feelings of being lost but determined. I think that determination is what keeps me competing in endurance sports. These men had a similar mentality. If someone can do it, why can’t I do it, too? They weren’t the first ones to make it to the pole but they were not going to turn back and not make it because of that.
I enjoyed the detail of living in a camp at such cold temperatures. I think of camping in the summer and being so warm in my tent. I never would have thought of being as cold as these men were and the idea of a sleeping bag freezing seems ludicrous to me. It also blew me away how long the men were gone. This was 1910, there was no taking a plane over and jumping on a snowmobile to get to the pole. It was a very strenuous commitment that the men didn’t undertake lightly.
I was expecting an abrupt end from Bainbridge and while I think a lot of people will say they disliked that most, I’m going to say the nicknames and head-hopping together made it frustrating for me. Everyone had a different name for the same person and for a while, I thought there were 20 or so people on the expedition. I didn’t get that The Owner, Captain Scott, and Con were all the same people. That was really frustrating.
Humans can be bull-headed once we’ve set our minds to something. Like myself as an endurance athlete, these men weren’t going to give up on their goal no matter how bleak it looked. Human determination can be an amazing thing but it can also be deadly, as this book shows. I see this story as a cautionary tale not to be so focused on a goal that you ignore your humanity.
Writer’s Takeaway: Bainbridge’s style is very casual and I like that about her. It feels like Taff or Birdie is telling you the story or wrote it in his journal to be read later. Nothing sounds too explained or detailed, everything is very much how the men would describe it. I sometimes struggle with first person narration because I want to give details but I know my point of view character wouldn’t provide that detail. I think Bainbridge does this well.
Good and enjoyable but not my favorite of her work. Three out of Five Stars.
This book fulfilled the 1900-1919 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.
Until next time, write on.