Monday, December 31, 2007

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Symone has an imaginary boyfriend--and he's been dead for over ninety years. The man of her dreams, quite literally, is Titus Oates, the famous, doomed Antarctic explorer. At age fourteen, Symone or Sym, knows more about the Antarctic than many people twice her age. She has an affinity for Titus, and her conversations with him are more real to her than her everyday life in modern England. It makes sense that her boyfriend would be decades older and a figment of her vivid imagination since Sym doesn't fit in among her classmates. Her hearing aids, general clumsiness, and painful shyness make it difficult to be anything other than the class joke. In her own estimation, Syms is a weak girl.

Luckily, the reader of The White Darkness figures out pretty quickly that Syms is much braver, stronger and smarter than she gives herself credit for. And it will take all of Syms's courage to survive the trip her Uncle Victor has planned for them. Both Uncle and Syms have been obsessed with the Antarctic for as long as they can remember. From Uncle's gift books, Syms learned about Titus Oates. So when Uncle Victor surprises Sym with a trip, first to Paris, and then on to Antarctica, Syms is overjoyed. She reveres her Uncle, the man who has practically raised her, and she never once considers that he could be doing anything wrong. After all, Uncle Victor assures Sym that he's told her mother about their trip and that missing so much school won't matter either. The reader's antennae go up at this, but it takes Syms a lot longer to even begin questioning whether Uncle-- the most brilliant man on earth, a genius, and her mentor--could be taking them into danger. After all, they're going to the Antarctic on a guided tour. What could go wrong?

This novel is beautifully written, and Syms emerges as an incredible character. She feels like a real teenager--one who lives inside her head, one who suffers from self-consciousness, one who is more than she realizes she is. She's a wonderful narrator, and her "relationship" with Titus works not only to give Syms some sense of stability, but to draw the reader into Syms's psyche as well. I found myself becoming sweet on Titus, and then I'd remember that Titus was invented by Syms and Syms was invented by Geraldine McCaughrean, and I'm sure there's some interesting philosophical musing I could pursue there, but I'll refrain. Suffice it to say, Titus is one of the best characters in the book even if he's not really "there." Even the flawed characters--and they're are several of them, deeply flawed---are shown as human. One may not forgive or excuse their evils, but through McCaughrean's beautiful writing, one understands why they've done the things they've done.
Plot is also a major strength. This book is exciting. I wasn't really expecting it to be since it takes awhile in the book for Syms to reach the point of danger. I thought, initially, this would be a book about a shy teenage girl in London (I hadn't read any synopses of the plot) and I was satisfied with that. Then things really begin to spiral in terms of conflict. I kept thinking that things in the Antarctic couldn't possibly get any more dangerous for Syms---and each time I thought this, things got more dangerous. Now things can't get more dangerous, I thought. And then they got more dangerous again. It was an intense read. I'm glad the book is on the long side, because I wanted it to go on and on. That's always the mark of a good read, in my opinion. At the same time I wanted the book to end, so I could know, will Syms live or die? She can't die can she? Well Titus did. . .

This novel is about many things--betrayal, love, the realization that those we love are not infallible, personal courage, imagination, and most of all survival. I'd highly recommend it.

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