The Birthday Boys is a fictionalized account of the Scott expedition’s travel to Antarctica in 1910. It’s told sequentially through the perspectives of five men that participate, each picking up where the last has left off and of course, also including some personal reflections and memories to make them more real to us. I was invited to read and review this novel based on my enjoyment of the book Ice Brothers, which was also a maritime tale (and is reviewed here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/01/03/ice-brothers-by-sloan-wilson/ ). Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, but this isn’t my book. I pushed myself all the way through it hoping for some redeeming aspect of it to pop up at the end, but it only gets worse as it goes, at least from my perspective.
Our story begins in Cardiff, and the men and The Owner (always capitalized) are eager to get started before the Antarctic winter sets in, so they pass their whaler off as a yacht in order to prevent safety regulations from slowing them down. They understand they are sailing across the world in a leaky tub, but one of them is too unprincipled to care, and the others are so darn young. In fact, wouldn’t reaching the destination on one’s twenty-first birthday be the best gift ever? Hence the title.
At the outset, I struggled a bit with some of the technical terms, looking up “plimsol line” and a couple of others, but by the 15% mark I had my legs under me, so to speak, and felt more confident. Soon thereafter, however, the nasty references to gender and race came into it. I looked back at the copyright; since this author, highly respected in the UK and winner of awards, was born in 1932, might this be a digital release of a very old book? But not so much: the original copyright date was 1991. Perhaps Dame Bainbridge felt that ugly racist terms might provide some flavor here. Likewise, the women included here, generally wives of the men involved that were tucked safely away at the base camp, were carping or hysterical, squabbled with one another, and Mrs. Scott, the only woman with any character at all according to the narrative, kept insisting that she hated women.
The plot is rugged and gruesome. If not for the issues just mentioned, I might compare the writing to that of Jack London, fascinating for those that love the adrenaline rush of life-or-death adventures, but too grisly for me. There’s some good work with figurative language and at times the scenes are tremendously visceral. Yet at times the pace actually plods along rather slowly for a book of its kind, and so I find myself wondering how this writer managed to be recognized by the queen; that is true, at least, until I find the following passage:
“It’s difficult for a man to know where he fits in any more. All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under the scrutiny of the magnifying glass…”
Well, perish the thought!
If not for the racism and sexism I’d call this a three star read. If an Antarctic expedition thrills you and you have the stomach for the…never mind. I can’t finish that sentence without scrunching up my face and squinting, so let’s go with the bare truth: I don’t recommend this book to anybody.
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