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He joins forces with an unlikely ally a plump and jolly local councillor who also believes

Posted on 07 October 2010

He joins forces with an unlikely ally, a plump and jolly local councillor, who also believes that the grandson was innocent.Together, they express the theme, so often found in Walters’ work, of deep anger against injustice and determination to do something about it. It’s an economical way of introducing us to the facts of the murder.Walters has always shunned the conventional police-series characters. Here she introduces two main personalities involved in collecting evidence. Jonathan Hughes goes further than understanding prejudice: he knows what it is to experience bullying and is forced to recognise within himself the deep shame of cowardice. “Disordered Minds” is in fact a book-within-a-book: Hughes’s own work arguing the case for wrongful conviction, a section of which is “reproduced” at the start of Walters’ novel. This was apparently carried out by an abnormal grandson who committed suicide after being bullied in prison. The case is re-opened by Dr Jonathan Hughes, ananthropologist of mixed-race background who understands from his own experience what prejudice is like, and believes that the boy was wrongly convicted.

The setting is the south coast in the Poole-Bournemouth area, home to one of the wealthiest communities in Europe, but also to extreme social deprivation.There is a “cold case” at the heart of the book, the brutal murder, some 30 years previously, of an old woman who was battered to death in her home. Minette Walters has made her name with a successful modern brand of Country House Gothic, but she is too complex a writer merely to continue the formula of horrific goings-on among the gentry, and has been alternating it with original and experimental crime-writing.
Disordered Minds takes a long, hard look at the disrupted lives of the victims of prejudice and abuse: Urban Estate Gothic, perhaps, but given a certain realism by an interesting form of factoid fiction which Walters has used in previous books. It is for the most part a beautifully written, thoughtful book; not one of great substance, but the substance that is there is interesting and important, and some of the lyrical passages touch the sublime. It will stand with Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams as a significant contribution to the non-scientific literature of the polar regions.Sara Wheeler is the author of ‘Terra Incognita: travels in Antarctica’ and of ‘Cherry: a life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’ (both published by Vintage). The book would have benefited from more scrupulous attention by the editors at National Geographic: Punta Arenas is in Chile, not Argentina.Overall, though, the various tones and subjects blend exceptionally well: End of the Earth is another example of the pleasing success of hybridisation in contemporary non-fiction. As a result, some of the material is thin – Matthiessen is at one point obliged to interview the captain of the Kapitan Khlebnikov about whether he prefers cruising work to naval icebreaking duties, and he ekes out a description of his cabin by comparing his porthole to, er, “a window on the sea”.

“How long this policy of restraint can be maintained in the light of rampant human populations and shrinking resources,” he wonders gravely, “is another matter.” In his ensuing diatribe against the American fossil fuel industry – a woeful saga of geopolitics, environmental deregulation and corporate greed – our own BP emerges with surprising credit.In terms of narrative, not much happens, blarting apart. His encounter with 70-lb yolky-breasted adult Emperors and their woolly grey chicks (“in neckless penitential plod”) provides the volume with its emotional focus.Part travel book and part natural history, End of the Earth is also an environmental tract. With “our self-destroying species” always in his mind, Matthiessen makes a passionate plea for the continent he rightly considers the last great wilderness. After discussing the latest amendments to the Antarctic Treaty, made in 1991, which ban all mining until 2041, he sounds a warning. Part Three of End of the Earth then tells the story of Matthiessen’s own Emperor pilgrimage, three years after his first Antarctic sojourn. This time he heads south as a passenger aboard the doughty icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.

He suggests that the “excruciating purity” of the Antarctic fulfils not just the “romantic dream of great adventure”, but also man’s painful and mysterious need “to confront his dread of death in order to liberate and heal himself of longing”. He predicates this theme on the Emperor penguin, a creature he failed to see on his first trip south. The bird becomes a kind of talisman, and Matthiessen devotes many pages to Cherry-Garrard’s winter journey, on Captain Scott’s second expedition, to collect Emperor eggs from Cape Crozier. The first part of End of the Earth recounts Matthiessen’s experiences in 1998 when he finally made it to the polar regions by signing up as a birding tour field leader on a cruise ship.Sailing out of Argentina on the R/V Akademik Ioffe, a hydro-acoustical, Finnish-built research vessel, his group visited South Georgia, the South Shetlands and the Antarctic peninsula, the finger of the continent that wiggles up towards South America.

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