The Ice Museum is a kind of travelogue about north European regions, with chapters on Oslo, Shetland, Iceland, northern Norway, Estonia, northwest Greenland, and Svalbard, loosely tied together by the puzzle of trying to identify the place that the ancient explorer Pytheas called Thule. Kavenna also reports on a visit to Munich where she tries to understand the Nazi fascination with the north. I found Kavenna’s web site on the Internet, and saw that she has also written some fine travel journalism and a novel. But this book, unfortunately, offers little to those who know the north already. The search for Thule is too thin a concept to sustain a book, as she half admits. Nor is The Ice Museum a fully satisfying travel book. Kavenna’s love of commas and run-on sentences makes her prose sputter and cough, and her insights into this jumble of eight very different places are necessarily shallow. Her Iceland write-up rehashes earlier journeys by Burton, Auden, and MacNeice, and she wastes three pages ranting about the Volcano Show in Reykjavík, to which she took a peculiarly strong dislike. Kavenna lives in London, in an apartment overlooking an expressway, and what she is really chasing is an elusive, half-real landscape of open space and broad ice fields, not the human reality of the countries that she visits. Over and over she uses phrases like “northern dreamworld,” “silence of the plains,” and “purity as a plain white space,” and she admits to an “anti-social impulse.” Recalling part of a winter spent living near Trondheim, Kavenna says that “everyone was quiet and friendly in this snow world [and] they waved from a distance” – a compelling image if you are squeezed into a sweaty subway train in London, but one which turns the people who live in the snow world into stick figures. There are few insightful character sketches in the book, she seems ill at ease with people, she spends a lot of time in bars, and many of the interactions she reports on are anonymous. In Iceland, the only person with whom she reports a conversation is a poet she meets briefly in a pub who claims to write in the tradition of the sagas. How much better a book this might have been if Kavenna had been able to make readers genuinely feel the paradox of human settlement in the far north: lives lived out every day on the brink of habitability, the fragility of supply and communication, the coexistence of beauty and danger, and the small scale of social institutions. Her Greenland chapter comes closest to managing this, and also has the most interesting cast of characters. But for the most part, I found The Ice Museum hard going.
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