Trac­ing com­pul­sions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anita Sethi

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.”

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