These last couple of years have seen a proliferation of WWI novels, prompted by the centennial anniversary. But Ice Letters by Susan Errington stands out by taking a different angle on WWI. The main character, Dora, participates in anti-war meetings with the Women’s Pacifist League. At one of these meetings, she meets Daniel, who is ensconced in an anti-war group with terrorist leanings. For all of its anti-war stance, this is a novel full of violence. Not the blood and guts kind, but the violence in the silence. The silence of not taking a stance when men do bad things, the silence of the ice-blue Antarctic sky, the silence of a letter that never gets sent.
Peace in Ice Letters does not mean the absence of violence. When Dora comes under the sway of Malachy Mora, in Daniel’s absence, she learns of the horrifically violent way some pursue the peace agenda, even if it means killing innocent lives.
“The history of pacifism in this war, she was beginning to realise, would be littered with violence.”
There are many absences in this novel. Both Daniel and Dora are the last of their family, inhabiting their family’s houses. “Like Dora, he seemed unable to move into the spaces of his absent family.” Dora keeps her brother’s room as it was before he went to war, a shrine to his memory, “captur[ing] …the moment between life and death.” Dora is describing a letter sent by her brother Edgar’s friend, describing the way Edgar died.
The narrative structure of more than half the book comprises letters that Dora and Daniel write to each other while he is in Antarctica, avoiding the consequences of his decision to fight against the war.
They might be an ocean apart, but words both put ‘on hold’ their relationship as well as ‘hold it together’. “They made words together as they made love.” In Adelaide, Dora and Daniel work on a book of Kipling poems together, which are also sent to them from England, almost as a symbol of Australia’s cultural as well as political hold on England’s apron strings.
The idea of suspension is also evoked in Errington’s description of setting. I’ve read few books set in Adelaide, and certainly none from this period, but Errington describes Adelaide as looking ‘decrepit’ in the summer. Then there is the brilliant expanse of white of Antarctica, and the ice cold seeps into the prose. “[T]he whole landscape of this strange country was the same, continually changing, building up, breaking down. A world without landmarks.”
Both Dora and Daniel are marking time, planning for a future together when presumably the war is over. They both have to do to what they can to “survive and go home”. Daniel winds a large clock to keep “time with the world they had left” in a place with no day or night. In a sense, their anti-war stance places them both out of time and step with the headlong rush into the war surrounding them. The name of the newssheet Daniel prints in Antarctica is aptly called ‘The Frozen Times’.
My copy courtesy of netgalley.
Susan Errington, Ice Letters, Random House Australia, 2 May 2016, pb. 320 pp., RRP $32.99