Arctic Summer By Damon Galgut Atlantic, 368pp, $29.99 NOVELISTS have often produced fine work by fictionalising the lives of other novelists. One thinks of how Colm Toibin so powerfully brought Henry James to life in The Master, and the echoes of VS Naipaul in the main character of Hanif Kureishi’s recent The Last Word.
Resurrecting a great novelist in fiction is what South African writer Damon Galgut, author of works such as The Quarry, The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room, sets out to do in his ambitious new novel, Arctic Summer, with the life and work of EM Forster at the heart of the gripping narrative.
The style and content of Forster’s writing is apparent in Arctic Summer — the title is taken from the name of the novel the English author never finished — yet Galgut also manages to forge a style uniquely his own. Drawing on Forster’s writings, including his diaries and letters as well as novels, Arctic Summer conjures his travels to India and the adventures and inspirations that led to A Passage to India.
The novel opens in 1912 when the SS City of Birmingham is travelling through the Red Sea midway on its journey to India. Standing on the forward deck is 33-year-old Morgan Forster, who already has four novels under his belt and is on a planned six-month voyage that is his first departure from Europe. Standing with him is a young army officer, Kenneth Searight, returning to where he is stationed in the West Frontier: “Morgan had seen him behave with kindness towards the single Indian passenger on board, a kindness that was otherwise in short supply, and he had been touched by it.”