Ally Wilkes, All the White Spaces, Titan, 2022.
All the White Spaces is a psychological horror novel built on the tension of the unseen. It will take you on a doomed expedition to Antarctica.
Jonathan's brothers die at the end of the war in 1918. Ravaged by grief and trapped by the constraints of the gender he was assigned at birth, he decides to leave on an expedition to Antarctica which was a dream for his brothers. Helped by Harry Cooper, his brothers' best friend, he hides on the Fortitude, the ship that'll bring the famous James "Australis" Randall to the Wendell Sea. But tensions during the voyage soon appear.
Jonathan is a fascinating character and not someone easy to like. We follow him from the moment he learns of his brothers' death and it's very much his grief and his relationship to them that centre the novel and the later horrific events. Because he was born female, his brothers always left him aside whereas he idolised them. In the same way, he didn't go to war while they did. The guilt, but also this idolisation, will define Jonathan's relationships with the crew of the Fortitude, including with Tarlington, a conscientious objector that the men despise because of this.
The war and its meaningless deaths weighs on everyone. Harry Cooper, Jonathan's brothers' friends, must deal with grief too but also trauma. All in a time when masculinity refused those words. He also has feelings for Jonathan and fails to realise that Jonathan is finally his true self, which leaves him befuddled and hurt.
Randall, on the other hand, appears like the hero. A famous adventurer, off to one last expedition and determined to reach the Wendell Sea and beyond. He'll prove fallible, of course.
The definition of masculinity and the horrors inflicted on the men during the First World War create an imbalance between the image they're supposed to project and their frailty or fallibility, leading to disaster.
The crew was a mixed bag for me. Although Tarlington, the scientist and "conchie" is very clearly well defined within the first pages of his appearance, the others sometimes blurred and lacked a precise identity to me.
All the White Spaces deals with grief, trauma, but also with identity. The horrors that await the crew of the Fortitude will prey on their guilt, sadness, narrow-mindedness, and desires. Jonathan will have to face up who his brothers were and who he is as a person, if he defines himself solely through them, the heroes of his childhood, the boys then soldiers he couldn't be, or if he exists apart from them and from his grief.
As horror novels go, Wilkes has very much written a slow burn of a book although the tension appears fairly quickly. I particularly enjoyed how she played with her setting. It's a novel of the unseen, of the liminal spaces, where people disappear and things are left unsaid. Revelations and epiphanies may only happen to those who aren't tormented by the self-delusions they cannot let go of. The enemy remains as much unseen, appearing in familiar forms but unknowable and unpredictable, a great metaphor for the grief that may hit each of us.
The pacing won't suit someone who wants a fast read with shocking twists and gore. But it fits perfectly with the themes. We slowly discover the main characters, we watch them take bad decision after bad decision and hope for salvation or glory while the austral winter closes in, the light dwindles, and the enemy prowls in darkness.
All the White Spaces is a novel that'll leave you wondering at the elegance of the characters' web Wilkes has woven. This journey to Antarctica is also a moving journey to a time when people were trapped by expectations, whether they were related to gender, patriotism, class, family, or glory. It's a novel that will remain with you.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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