By Dani Redd
“The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn” – Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice
In a world of rising temperatures and melting ice-caps, Nancy Campbell aims to learn as much as she can about ice before it vanishes. In The Library of Ice (published November 2018 by Scribner UK) she visits museums and libraries everywhere from Oxford to Greenland, seeking to discover how various people have attempted to record, categorise and understand ice. She also undertakes a series of different artist’s residencies and journeys, seeking to find her own way of writing about it too. The result is Library of Ice, part travelogue, part memoir, part compendium — a fascinating and unique elegy to the ephemeral landscapes of the Arctic.
Descriptions of journeys real and imagined are grouped under six themed chapters: scientists; explorers; hunters; skaters; philosophers; and gamblers. I was particularly intrigued by a section on ice cores in the first chapter, ‘Scientists: Calling Time’. Nancy describes how ice caps are comprised of strata, as each winter’s snow is buried by next year’s blizzards, each layer compressed and preserves. Ice cores are large cylinders drilled out from these ice caps. They can be analysed to reveal the age and atmospheric conditions of the ice. Nancy’s lyrical prose renders these scientific artefacts into works of art:
“Under the magnifying glass the cross-sections of the core glow like magic lantern slides. Summer and winter snowfall have an entirely different appearance: the coarse-grained summer hoar is covered with a fine-grained layer, densely packed by the winter winds.”
The description draws upon scientific observations, but it’s also artistic; an appreciation of the core’s aesthetic qualities. It’s during moments like this — when Nancy’s writing blurs the disciplinary boundaries between the arts and the sciences — that the Library of Ice is most compelling.
My favourite chapter is ‘Philosophers: Under the Glacier.’ It’s the one that comes closest to being a narrative travelogue, evocatively describing a trip Nancy took to Iceland. The chapter is peppered with wry observations about the people she encounters, and the rain that continues to fall, interrupting her journey. Exquisite descriptions of Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes are interspersed with legends from the Prose Edda, stories of contemporary explorers and Iceland’s writers. Nancy also highlights the vulnerability of Iceland’s glaciers; a poignant and accessible way of talking about climate change. The island emerges as a territory comprised of layers of history, myth and scientific narrative — a multi-layered artefact, just ice itself.
There are places in the book where the narrative feels less cohesive, more fragmentary. Indeed, as Nancy herself writes, “my own thoughts are a chaos of facts gathered from five centuries of science.” I found this added to the book, rather than detracting from it. In fact, structure echoes content, for the fragmentary narrative replicates the shifting, drifting, mutating qualities of ice. What’s more, the departure from a linear ‘master narrative’ also creates a multiplicity that allows other voices to emerge from the text. Alongside several of the usual subjects populating Arctic texts — explorers such as John Franklin and William Barents — The Library of Ice also includes Inuit myths, work of forgotten scholars, and stories of present-day female artists and scientists. In doing so, it contributes towards the re-narrativisation of the Arctic, which the western world tends to perceive as a masculine space, populated by rugged explorers and scientists.
My one criticism of the book is that there were places where I felt as if it got bogged down in an excess of quotidian detail — of haircuts, the act of note-taking, former names of airport terminals — which caused my attention to wander from the narrative. However, these moments were infrequent. For the most part, the book is beautifully written, shifting seamlessly between different epochs, ideas and places.
Overall, I found The Library of Ice compelling and original — a book which can be read and re-read multiple times. It’s an essential read for anyone interested in the mutable, multi-faceted qualities of ice. Island lovers will also appreciate the book’s depiction of islands such as Greenland and Iceland; the descriptions of their landscapes, myths and daily lives.
Dani Redd loves thinking about, writing about and visiting islands. She has legitimised her passion through a PhD studying representations of islands in contemporary fiction. Her recently completed novel, Bodeg, follows a family as they journey to a remote island in the Arctic circle, and explores the effect the isolated landscape has upon each character. Her inspiration was drawn from multiple visits to Iceland and a writing residency at Gamli Skóli, on the island of Hrísey. Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including The Cardiff Review. She won Words and Women’s inaugural short fiction award in 2014.