As I picked up this book, my eyes giving the cover and blurb a cursory glance, I got the impression that this would be your run-of-the-mill historical fiction romance set against a whimsical late eighteenth-century backdrop.
The premise seems to promise a tale of adventure and enduring love.
Oh, the naivety.
Instead, this book offers poignant philosophising on the human obsession with exploration without forgoing any of the poetry or illusions of a literary fiction novel.
A World With No Shore is a loose retelling of the expedition of Salomon August Andrée, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg, who attempted to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon in 1897. Left behind on solid ground was Nil’s fiancé, Anna Charlier, who waited over thirty years for the return of her love. Their disappearance was a mystery that haunted Sweden and Norway for three centuries before the men’s remains were found, along with rolls of filled film and their detailed logbooks.
Andrée sets off on his expedition to find the mystical North Pole. He’s a man of science, wanting to document and capture the land that has been so elusive to human society. He’s also under pressure from his homeland to not only capture but also conquer this northern wilderness. However, Hélène Gaudy’s imagined version of Andrée is so deluded by the promise of discovery, domination, and fame that he is (perhaps even intentionally) blind to the mission’s faults.
Ultimately, the icy land of the Arctic was impenetrable. With vivid imagery, Gaudy captures our heroes’ deathbed: ruthlessly white, blindingly indistinguishable, with no shore to go towards or offerings of escape. Gaudy’s prose is stunning and incredibly poetic. The descriptions of our adventuring trio killing a polar bear are as detailed and moving as those of Anna’s prolonged grief as she waits for her beloved. The world Gaudy has created is so life-like that I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a work of fiction.
The book has been described as a “brilliant contemporary twist on the historical novel”. Sure enough, Gaudy expertly blurs the lines between facts and fiction, pulling you in. The thoughts and feelings of the characters come from Gaudy’s interpretations of the logbooks and photographs. Yet, her observations about the human condition are so astute, and her tone is so level-headed and erudite, that it reads like a history book written in poetic form.
Interspersed throughout Andree’s expedition are other little stories from history. Stories of pioneers, inventors, and explorers of the North Pole, all serve to provide a new perspective to our three adventurers.
Gaudy dedicates a chapter to the most unknown of the three, Knut Frænkel. Historians have deduced a few facts about him—his parentage, and his education. But we’ll never truly know this man. Our author creates a figure from the different interpretations of lingering evidence to postulate who this man was. It’s an entirely refreshing approach to the historical fiction genre. Rather than filling the gaps in history with her own fancies, Gaudy humbly admits the truth of literature and nature: there are things we can never know. Things that will be lost forever because no fading photograph can truly revive them.
There is something quite admirable about human endeavour and the incredible feats we’ve accomplished as a race. In the unexplored, derelict regions, we seek definition. We seek love and belonging. A place to call our own. But it’s through the legend of Andrée and his wilful naivety that Gaudy also gives a warning we’d be wise to heed. While we feel a need to define our own lives and the land, one day, it may just be an illusion. A poor reflection in a photograph. What’s left after we’ve domesticated it? There may one day be no wild in us or the earth.
Ultimately, Hélène Gaudy’s A World With No Shore is a stunning novel. It took me a while to really get into the book—I honestly thought I was in for a light romantic—but happily, it surpassed my expectations. And don’t be mistaken; while historical, this book is entirely necessary and relevant for today as our world is increasingly confronted with the erasure of the past.