A provoca­tive, ur­gent and el­e­gant novel about time, fam­ily, and how a chang­ing planet might trans­form our lives.

SFX - - Reviews - by James Bradley

Adam is a sci­en­tist based in Antarc­tica, mark­ing the pas­sage of the sol­stice. Across the globe, his wife El­lie is wait­ing for the re­sults of her IVF treat­ment…

as Adam steps out­side the cold strikes him like a phys­i­cal thing, the shock still star­tling af­ter all th­ese weeks. For a mo­ment he pauses, look­ing out across the bay, the crowd­ing floes of ice. Then, ad­just­ing his gog­gles, he de­scends the short ramp to the scoured stone upon which the build­ing stands and strikes out to­wards the head­land.

It is quiet out here to­day, the only sounds that dis­turb the si­lence those of the wind, the oc­ca­sional squalling cry of the birds. Down by the wa­ter an ele­phant seal lies on the rocks, its vast bulk mot­tled and slug­like; around it tracks of hu­man ac­tiv­ity scar the snow like rust, turn­ing it grey and red and dirty.

In the build­ing be­hind him the other per­son­nel are cel­e­brat­ing the sol­stice, an oc­cur­rence those sta­tioned here have long ob­served with an ex­tended meal and drink­ing and dancing. The event is a way of mark­ing not just the date but the pe­cu­liar rhythms of life at the base, the an­nual cy­cle which means that from here on the ar­rivals will slow and de­par­tures in­crease, un­til only the skele­ton crew who main­tain the fa­cil­ity through the months of cold and dark­ness re­main. Pass­ing the Klein-blue boxes of the power dis­tri­bu­tion units he finds him­self won­der­ing again about this tra­di­tion. Hu­mans have ob­served the sol­stice for tens of thou­sands of years, but are those fes­tiv­i­ties truly cel­e­bra­tions, or some­thing more am­biva­lent? Sym­bols of loss, of the run­ning down of things? Af­ter all, the sol­stice also marks the be­gin­ning of sum­mer’s end, the first in­ti­ma­tion of the year’s long re­treat back into the dark.

Be­yond the last build­ing the land opens out, the dirty grey of rock and mud and melt­ing snow giv­ing way to the white glare of ice. The wind is stronger here, and even colder, but he does not slow or turn aside; in­stead, clos­ing his hand around the phone in his pocket, he shrugs his neck deeper into his col­lar and quick­ens his step.

Back in Syd­ney it is just af­ter one, and El­lie will be in the wait­ing room of the clinic. He can pic­ture her seated in the cor­ner, on the couch she al­ways chooses, try­ing to con­cen­trate on her tablet or flick­ing through a mag­a­zine. Nor­mally she would not be there alone, but be­fore he left they agreed she would con­tinue the treat­ment while he was away, a de­ci­sion he tried not to take as a sign his pres­ence was no longer re­ally needed.

To­day’s ap­point­ment is the last for this cy­cle and in many ways the only one that mat­ters. For while over the past fort­night El­lie has been to the clinic al­most daily, ini­tially for hor­mone in­jec­tions, then later for the ex­trac­tion of the ova and the im­plan­ta­tion of the fer­tilised em­bryos, it is to­day that they will take her blood one last time and tell her whether the process has suc­ceeded. They have been here be­fore, of course. Once a month for the best part of two years the two of them have sat in that of­fice and watched the gy­nae­col­o­gist purse her lips and as­sume the mask of bland con­cern she uses to de­liver the bad news; once a month for the best part of two years he has reached out to take El­lie’s hand as she nods and thanks the gy­nae­col­o­gist, the only sign of her distress the stiff­ness with which she holds her­self, the care with which she finds her way to her feet and back to the wait­ing room.

It of­ten seems strange to him that they have ended up here. Six years ago, when he and El­lie met, the idea of chil­dren seemed im­pos­si­bly re­mote, the ques­tion of whether he might one day want them so re­moved from his life as to be ir­rel­e­vant.

Even af­ter all that has hap­pened, the fact of their meet­ing still seems mirac­u­lous to him, a gift. El­lie was at art school, pre­par­ing an in­stal­la­tion about botan­i­cal bio­di­ver­sity. Look­ing for im­ages, she con­tacted the univer­sity and was re­ferred to Adam’s su­per­vi­sor, who in turn passed her re­quest to Adam’s of­fice­mate. Fi­nally, for­tu­itously, it was passed to Adam him­self.

Deep in the fi­nal months of his doc­tor­ate, he re­ally only scanned the re­quest, then, af­ter mak­ing a note about meet­ing her a few days later, for­got about it so com­pletely that when he ar­rived at his of­fice to find her seated on the chair un­der the win­dow he didn’t re­alise she

Her skin was bat­tered, scat­tered here and there with freck­les

was there for him.

She was dressed in a short skirt, leg­gings and boots, her dark hair pulled back in a loose pony­tail, al­though it wasn’t her out­fit that caught his at­ten­tion at first, but the clar­ity and di­rect­ness of her gaze, the ease with which she seemed to in­habit the space around her. Aware she seemed to be ex­pect­ing him, he stopped and half turned to­wards her. ‘Adam?’ she said. ‘I’m El­lie.’ He smiled back, aware she could see he didn’t know who she was.

‘From the Col­lege of Fine Art? You told me to come by?’

‘Yes,’ he said as it came back to him in a rush. ‘I’m sorry, I’d for­got­ten.’

‘If now’s not a good time . . .’ But he waved her down.

‘No, now is fine. Just let me get the door open.’

In­side, while he started up his com­puter, she leaned to­wards the card pinned to the wall above it, a nine­teen­th­cen­tury draw­ing of a ra­di­o­lar­ian. Ren­dered in care­ful pen and ink, its sea-urchin-like form had the del­i­cate per­fec­tion of a jewel.

‘It’s Haeckel, isn’t it?’ she said, as much to her­self as to him.

He glanced up. ‘It is. How did you know?’

She smiled. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time look­ing at the pe­riod.’

Lean­ing over he reached for the card, traced the out­line of the im­age with his fin­ger. ‘Is this the sort of thing you’re af­ter?’

‘Per­haps. I’m in­ter­ested in the dif­fer­ent ways we per­ceive and rep­re­sent plants and an­i­mals, the way en­coun­ter­ing those rep­re­sen­ta­tions can some­times be like glimps­ing a lost world, all of its own.’

In­trigued, he stud­ied her for a mo­ment. Then he stood up. ‘Let me see what I can help you find.’

Over the next two hours he showed her through the var­i­ous col­lec­tions held by the de­part­ment, in­creas­ingly de­lighted not just by her in­ter­est but by the qual­ity of her at­ten­tion, the care with which she con­sid­ered each new doc­u­ment or spec­i­men. And so it was un­ex­pected when, as they neared the end of the tour, she turned to him and asked, ‘Doesn’t it frighten you?’ ‘Doesn’t what frighten me?’ ‘That th­ese sorts of col­lec­tions might be all we have left?’

The truth was it ter­ri­fied him, but he knew no way of giv­ing that fear ex­pres­sion with­out it over­whelm­ing him. So he just nod­ded. ‘Bet­ter we have a record of what’s lost.’ In the days that fol­lowed they be­gan to correspond by email, her re­quests for fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and his ideas about other spec­i­mens and im­ages that might in­ter­est her quickly tak­ing on a play­ful in­ti­macy, un­til late one evening, a fort­night af­ter that first meet­ing, she sug­gested he meet her at an ex­hi­bi­tion the next day. He was sur­prised when he first saw her walk­ing to­wards him. Af­ter two weeks chat­ting on­line she seemed dif­fer­ent: smaller, less per­fectly com­posed. Al­though she moved with the same con­fi­dence, in the light out­side the gallery her pale skin was more bat­tered than he re­mem­bered, scat­tered here and there with freck­les. Later he learned that she had the same re­ac­tion, that like him she had found speak­ing in per­son awk­ward at first, the im­me­di­acy of their on­line friend­ship re­placed by an un­easy com­bi­na­tion of fa­mil­iar­ity and un­fa­mil­iar­ity. The ex­hi­bi­tion was by a Ja­panese artist – del­i­cate forms carved from wood and shell and metal poised mid­way be­tween the bi­o­log­i­cal and the me­chan­i­cal, that seemed si­mul­ta­ne­ously an­cient and exquisitely mod­ern. Some re­sem­bled the skele­tons of mam­mals or birds or fish, oth­ers less eas­ily cat­e­gorised crea­tures with sleek cara­paces of bur­nished tim­ber, or shim­mer­ing skeins of mother-of-pearl, like refugees from the an­cient oceans of the Cam­brian, or per­haps some strange fu­ture in which mat­ter it­self had taken on life and in­scrutable pur­pose. As­ton­ished by their beauty, con­fused by their ali­en­ness, Adam wan­dered from one to the next, barely speak­ing. At one point he glanced at El­lie and, catch­ing her watch­ing him, smiled, the fact of her pres­ence sud­denly mar­vel­lous to him, his de­light am­pli­fied when she smiled back.

To find out what hap­pens next, pick up Clade, out now from Ti­tan Books (RRP £7.99). E-book also avail­able. www.ti­tan­

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