Icebreaker by Horatio Clare

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Horatio Clare, who is quite an accomplished nature and travel writer, having a book on container ships and several on birds to his name, takes a journey to the far North, going out with an icebreaker ship for a working trip in the Bay of Bothnia, setting off from Finland and learning about ships, ice, life at sea and global warming in a lyrical and beautifully written book which will certainly stay with me for a long time, on my shelves and in my mind.

The book takes in climate change and global warming but never forces it down your throat: although it has some beautiful descriptions and lovely passages, it’s essentially a practical book about practical people doing a job despite and because of the circumstances.

The idea for the voyage comes from a Finnish friend who invites Clare, via the Embassy, to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence by taking in a voyage on a government icebreaker and writing about it. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with the terribly upsetting news of another, mutual friend’s accident and decline. I was a bit worried the book would be pinned on this, as so many nature and other non-fiction books seem to insert deeply personal narratives to beef things up a bit; but here it’s definitely a frame rather than a constant thread, and the author is allowed to concentrate on telling the often prosaic and technical story of the ship. He does talk about the isolation of the seafaring life and how “You meet yourself at sea in ships, and your ghosts too,” but dwells more on the stories of the ships and the crew.

Starting off in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, Clare moves to Oulu to find his ship, and talks about modern Finland and its technology heroes. He also fills us in on the war of independence and the unrest afterwards, and the long memories people hold of these, similar perhaps to memories of the French WWII Resistance, but of course longer. He eats out and meets some Finns and realises that in a land that’s dark half the year, odd opening hours and the great phone signal mean life can be lived at any time, and there’s always somewhere open.

The ships which are being helped by the icebreakers are carrying all sorts of cargoes, chemicals, ore, etc., and vary in size and experience. There’s a real sense of a network of large ships being helped by the icebreakers and pilots, with the captain of Otso, Tem, controlling a number of icebreakers which zip back and forth across the bay. It’s a tricky, skilled and satisfying job but there’s a good amount of joy involved, too, especially when the crew descend onto the ice and fly a drone around to film the ship in action. The crew are introduced and described, the taciturnity of seafarers enhanced by the typical Finnish reserve meaning some people won’t speak to him at all, not out of anti-social attitudes as much as out of shyness. He does bond with some of them though and realises how much they relish their unique skills, turning the ship in a channel in the ice as wide as the ship is long or keeping within such a distance of the client ship that it could run into them at any time.

Although the animals and birds of Finland are few and far between out in the bay, there is charming excitement when they are spotted. Early on, there’s a “seal like a fat semi-colon” and a sea eagle which lead to “a chatter of Finnish and a grabbing of binoculars,” and in total a scattering of birds and two more seals – he has never been that long seeing so few living creatures. He does explain that the Bay teems with fish and has plenty of birds in the unfrozen, summer months.  Back on land at the end of the book, he finds himself assaulted by the smells of nature that were absent from the 10-day voyage: “The smell is sharp and thrilling and I realis how strange it has been to be within sight of land and utterly apart from it. No scent or sensation that belongs to it has been anywhere near us until now”. Clare ends up thinking of the ice as its own being, too, alive with agency: “Sea ice can be hacked and broken, but sea ice cannot be made by us and cannot be controlled”.

There’s interesting geopolitical as well as climate change information interspersed throughout the book. Russia looms over Finland, as it always has, and the European sanctions on the larger country have hit the exports and imports that used to come through Finland and led Finland to forge new alliances. The climate change evidence is presented, with a suitable degree of sorrow, but not laboured: the reader is left to think for themselves.

There’s also information on folklore and myth packed into this short and highly enjoyable book, with the Kalevala discussed in detail, collected from the oral tradition and a huge help in separating a Finnish identity from the former Swedish and Russian rulers. The book really bats above its size and will be of interest to those looking for a different kind of nature book, as well as people interested in ships and the sea, and human relations. The only thing I would have liked more of would have been a map and perhaps some other images; the map was the greatest lack, although obviously it’s easy to find them.

Liz Dexter knows quite a lot of random stuff about Finland and the far North but has never been on an icebreaker. She blogs about books and running at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Horatio Clare, Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Chatto & Windus, 2017). 978-1784741952, 213 pp., hardback.

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3 Comments

  1. As soon as I started reading your review I knew this would be perfect reading fodder for my son who is a cadet in the Merchant Navy. A quick google later and I’ve realised that I bought him the author’s book on container shipping last year which he really enjoyed, so it’s bound to be a winner!

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