Alone in the Antarctic – or not

spire Spire, by Fiona Snyckers (Clockwork Books)

Years ago I discovered Modesty Blaise. Not the comic strip, the books by Peter O’Donnell. They were tales of derring-do, with Modesty and her sidekick Willie Garvin tackling and beating baddies all over the world.

They would get into terrible scrapes, so that you wondered how they could possibly save themselves (you knew they would save themselves). Occasionally, when O’Donnell had written himself into a corner, he would use the “with one bound he was free” solution.

Once Willie, who had been thrown out of a plane without a parachute over a snowy landscape, tracked towards a heap of snow that turned out to be covering a small flock of sheep. His landing didn’t do the sheep any good, but Willie made it.

The stories were absurd, but there was something about Modesty and Willie, their utter loyalty to each other (he always called her Princess), their bravery, their resourcefulness, that kept you reading.

I thought about those stories while reading Spire by Fiona Snyckers. The situation is ludicrous and yet – there’s something that keeps you turning the pages.

Dr Caroline Burchell is a South African surgeon and virologist who has organised herself a dream job – being the base doctor while overwintering at Spire, the South Pole International Research Establishment in Antarctica. She will look after the health of 40-plus people on the base, with the help of a nurse, but also do research into how the extreme conditions affect a range of viruses and bacteria.

And to this end she has a closely guarded box of sealed germs, including some pretty nasty ones: smallpox, bubonic plague, Ebola and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

Okay, you’re ahead of me. Within a week of the last aircraft leaving the base for the long dark southern winter, people start turning up in the sickbay, mortally ill. What doesn’t make sense to Caroline, though, is that all her scary vials are still securely sealed.

Back in New York Director King, chair of Spire’s board, tells Caroline there is no way they can send a rescue aircraft. The weather is already too bad, and King is not prepared to risk other lives in a rescue bid.

Soon Caroline, who went on an intensive regimen of vaccinations before going to Antarctica, is on her own. After being slightly ill herself, she recovers to find everyone else on the base dead. Everyone but her and Charka, the cat.

Director King believes Caroline is a mass murderer, and makes it clear she will either have to survive on her own until the first aircraft arrives in spring, when she will be arrested, or die like everyone else.

There’s plenty of food of course, but can Caroline maintain the base sufficiently – like keeping the generators and heating going – to stay alive?

That’s one serious problem. And then another surfaces: Caroline comes to believe she and Charka are not alone. Someone else seems to have survived the epidemics, and be hiding out in the maze of spaces that make up the base. And then it turns out – no, I have to stop.

The entire premise is ridiculous, and yet… I kept reading to the end, and I enjoyed it. I haven’t read any Fiona Snyckers books before, but she is the author of the Trinity novels, and Spire is apparently the second in a trilogy about the Burchell sisters. Three of her novels have been nominated for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Argus in August 2017


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