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Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, by Gavin Francis

review published on December 21, 2013. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins is Gavin Francis’ second book, and follows True North: Travels in Arctic Europe. Since its publication, it has been very highly praised indeed. Robert MacFarlane was ‘drawn onwards by the pleasure the calmly elegant prose was bringing’ him, Margaret Drabble deems it ‘worthy to stand beside some of the great travel narratives in the English language’, and Giles Foden heralds it ‘a triumph’.

Fed up with the pressures of life in the busy city of Edinburgh, Francis says, ‘I wanted to throw myself into an extended stay somewhere remote, a place where for weeks and months I would have few responsibilities and unlimited mental space’. After graduating as a doctor, Francis decided to apply for a job with the British Antarctic Survey (‘BAS’ for short) and received a position at the remote Halley Research Station in Antarctica, where he lived for a year: ‘They told me that at Halley, once the ship had departed, there would be no way in and no way out for ten months’. The bleakness of the place and the lack of human civilisation around him appealed to rather than deterred Francis.

The book has been split into sections which relate to the seasons, and each is comprised of different chapters, ranging from ‘Imagining Antarctica’ to ‘Freedom of the Ice’. Maps, photographs and quotes from other arctic explorers who have inspired the author – Ernest Shackleton and Richard Byrd to name but two – have been included throughout. Empire Antarctica is a memoir as much as a travelogue. Francis talks about his childhood fascination with birds, and the first time at which he saw live penguins: ‘They were so different from any kind of bird I knew that they captured my attention and my imagination’. It is rather fitting then, the first chapter opens with Francis setting off to ‘watch the gathering of the emperors’ on the newly formed sea ice.

Empire Antarctica has been beautifully written throughout, and Francis’ descriptions particularly shine: ‘Light in Antarctica is refracted and reflected between ice and sky as though through a hall of mirrors; the continent bathes in the colours of flame as the autumn days grow colder’.

The memories which Francis presents are fascinating. As well as his own experiences there, he details the history of fascination which the Antarctic holds, the lack of its history, and the quest to get as far south as was possible. The entirety of the book has been very well set out. There is a lot within its pages to please a lot of different reading interests – the history of remote places, journeys and exploration, natural history, setting oneself up in a completely new place, and the beauty and loneliness which comes with such a new beginning. Empire Antarctica is a marvellous wintry read, and a voyage of discovery, both geographically and personally – surely the best tools there are for writing a travelogue.

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