Adventure novels are sort of like Tom Cruise action movies: They often sacrifice depth in order to emphasize a fast-paced plot. Not so with The White Darkness, which pulls off a neat trick in successfully balancing an action-packed plot with Sym's bouts of deep introspection.
Frequently, Sym has important realizations about herself and others in between her battles with the elements. "The hatred I felt for Bruch was nothing to what I felt for myself," she thinks at one point:
All along I had my doubts about miniature fossil hands for sale on eBay. And what had I done about it? […] Too afraid of crossing Victor, of losing his good opinion, I stowed all my misgivings out of sight, like dirty magazines on top of a wardrobe. Every crime like this needs someone like me to look away and say nothing. (14.90)
The heaviness of Sym's emotional problems is offset somewhat by the book's imaginative tone. Her imaginary boyfriend, Titus, is a big fan of Real Talk, but he's also very funny. There's a certain sense of whimsy in various plot points, including those imaginary conversations, Victor's crackpot theories about Symmes's Hole (and other eccentricities), and Manfred and Sigurd's impersonation of Vikings. Which is good, because things can get pretty heavy—and high stakes—too.
It almost goes without saying that a book about exploring Antarctica belongs to the adventure genre. The story moves at a quick pace, with the extreme climate (and the baddies) providing a constant sense of danger. On the surface, our characters are on a quest to find Symmes's Hole, a secret portal to the center of the earth. Since that place doesn't actually exist, the more important quest is ultimately an internal one: Sym's struggle to come to terms with her father's death.
Though the external landscape of Antarctica is a fascinating one, we readers also spend a lot of time exploring another interesting terrain—Sym's psyche. Her interior landscape is just as fascinating as the icy external one. Elements of mystery surrounding other characters' motivations help add to the book's strong sense of suspense. For a long time, we wonder whether Victor is an eccentric scientist or a crazed murderer. He is of course the latter, but figuring that out is part of the fun.
The phrase "white darkness" describes a paradoxical phenomenon central to the Antarctic landscape. In polar summer, when Sym visits, the sun never sets. That means it's always light, even at nighttime. "They call it the White Darkness," Sym says. "A window opaque with condensation. A cataract over the eyeball." It is the "presence of light without any of the usual complications—like being able to see" (20.38).
Such a study in contrasts is befitting of a book where things are never as they seem. Victor, who poses as a generous benefactor, is actually a murderer. Manfred poses as Victor's biggest fan, but he's actually stealing his money. And Sym feels unbearably awkward, even as many of her fellow travelers have been nursing a crush on her.
Packed with murder and melancholy, The White Darkness is a bleak sort of book. Still, it manages to end on a hopeful note. Yay.
Sym, recently rescued from her plight in Antarctica, is homeward bound and enjoying the attentions of Mike, a fellow traveler who she—and we, the readers—never really noticed until now. When he asks her on a date, Sym is obliged to turn him down (she's just fourteen, after all). Still, she doesn't respond with silence, disgust, or awkwardness, as she almost certainly would have at the beginning of the book. Instead, Sym flirts a little, and even manages to make a joke. "Keep in touch won't you?" she says. "I'm planning on being older in a year or two" (22.61). Looks like our girl is growing up, and becoming more confident in the process.
Though we pass through a number of cities in the first pages of the book (including London, Paris, and Buenos Aires), our final destination is Antarctica, also known as The Ice. Uncle Victor drags Sym there as part of his quest to find Symmes's Hole—her namesake—an imaginary place that, like the continent itself, serves as an apt symbol for Sym's loneliness.
Think about it: What place could better represent a lonely, depressed person's life? It's hostile, unpopulated, and remote. "God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him," Sym tells us. "At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn't finished. It's the address for Nowhere" (6.38). Well then.
If you're thinking it sounds like Sym hates Antarctica, though, think again—she loves this icy desert so much that going here almost feels like vacation. At least, it feels that way in the beginning when she's at base camp with a group of fellow travelers part of an outfit called Pengwings. As time goes on, the trip becomes decidedly less relaxing. Sym's progress across increasingly thin ice is both literal—she travels over a glacier and even an ice shelf—and spiritual. By the end, she comes to terms with many difficult things in her life, including her father's death and Victor's betrayal.
From early in the book, we understand there is a profound connection between the setting and Sym's inner life. (Check out the "Symbols" section for more info.) Long before she sets foot in Antarctica, Sym associates the frozen, but chaotic, continent with her own life. In many ways, the physical environment mirrors her interior landscape. "The bookshelves over my bed are full of books about the North and South Poles" (1.7), she says before continuing:
A glacial cliff face teetering over my bed. I remember the night after Dad had been rushed into the hospital, one of the shelves sheared off and crashed down on me. I woke up thinking the house was collapsing—books gouging at my head, bouncing off the bed frame, slapping flat on the floor. I looked at the hole in the wall and the brackets on the pillow and I didn't know what to do. About the shelf. About anything. (1.8)
From here it only seems natural that Sym travels to The Ice itself to cope with her father's death. When she first arrives there, she's emotionally frozen, but over time she starts to thaw. After Victor's death, Sym's final trek through a blizzard represents the difficult task she faces in coming to terms with her emotions as she copes with betrayal and death (of her uncle, her father, and even Titus). During this journey, Sym chooses life. "I don't want to be in a dead place that doesn't even want my dead body!" she says. "I don't want to be food for the leopard seals and the crabs! I want to be somewhere that wants me!" (21.96) It's no coincidence that, soon after this, she returns home to England.
Not all settings pack such a symbolic punch, but in The White Darkness, Antarctica speaks volumes about our leading lady and the journey she's on.
Geraldine McCaughrean knows nothing kicks off a book quite like quoting Satan. (Well, technically the epigraph was written by John Milton, but it's something Satan says in Paradise Lost.) The quote itself is about subjectivity and how much in life is interpreted according to your state of mind.
This is especially relevant to Sym, the protagonist in The White Darkness, who is an introvert that lives inside her own head as much as she inhabits the external world. Sym sees imagination as a positive force in her life that makes difficult situations seem more bearable. But in some ways, her imagination is also the author of a lot of unnecessary negativity; often Sym is too self-conscious (and self-critical) for her own good. Plus, part of her mind picks up on Victor, Manfred, and Sigurd's shadiness, as evidenced by Titus's comments, but a bigger part of her mind pushes these clues aside in favor of a rosier picture.
The White Darkness has a fairly straightforward plot that's not difficult to follow. Thank goodness for that, because the novel's ideas and trappings are extremely complex. By "trappings" we're talking about the language, which is dense and sometimes difficult to understand. There are some serious five-dollar words, and some of the characters talk funny, which means the dialogue may take some extra time to read. Don't worry—the book includes plenty of excitement and adventure, which keeps things moving.
In The White Darkness, author Geraldine McCaughrean juggles a lot of concepts that overlap in interesting ways. She ties Sym's emotional development to the external landscape of Antarctica, finding a profound connection between Sym's inner life and her external environment. McCaughrean also imagines part of Sym's personality as a historical figure from the early 20th century. The intricacy and nuance in the text helps successfully keep all those balls in the air. As Sym says, "It's a lot to take in. A place with my name. The entrance to a hollow planet. Worlds within worlds" (8.25-8.28). Sing it, sister.
McCaughrean also shows sensitivity and empathy toward her characters. There is Sym, of course, who is a sensitive girl. But the novel isn't just sympathetic toward Sym; it also spares a kind thought for the bad guys. When Sym and Sigurd realize that Manfred doesn't have gloves ("suddenly the lack of gloves made Bruch real again—flesh-and-blood real, not a character in a play" (15.22)), he transforms from a con man who got his comeuppance to a victim who should be pitied. And when Sym says that Victor destroyed her, Titus suggests that even he deserves pity. "But do you think he meant to? Do you think it was done with malice?" (21.7)
The last characteristic, ambiguity, is—by definition—a bit more difficult to pin down. Suffice to say McCaughrean leaves room for doubt, or multiple interpretations. One example is the way in which she suggests that Titus "came to life" toward the end of the book when he rescues Sym. Is he just a figment of her imagination the whole time? Or is there some supernatural element in play? "How could he possibly have told me something I truly didn't know?" Sym wonders. "Oh, Titus! Tell me what it means! Tell me what to make of it! Tell me what to think?" (23.51) But on this point, at least, Titus (and by extension, the author) refuses to clarify.
The vast white expanse of Antarctica is almost like a blank screen that shows us Sym's inner life. Its desolate and removed landscape mirrors her loneliness, while the cold climate reflects her sexual frigidity—something Sym worries about constantly because she's so uninterested in sex. "That's when I sealed myself inside," Sym says after being teased by her sexually active friend Maxine. "Laced up the tent, so to speak. Filled the locks with water so that they would freeze" (1.18). Just like Antarctica, then, Sym is isolated and frozen.
Even Symmes Hole, the hollow portal to the center of the world that supposedly lies somewhere in Antarctica, represents Sym's interior landscape. She feels empty after her father dies, unlovable and socially worthless.
The continent's quiet aural landscape matches Sym's as well since she is partially deaf. "At home there is nowhere you can stand—the playground, the garden, the high street—and not hear the drone of an airplane," she observes. "But here in Antarctica it is the rarest of sounds" (11.68).
The isolation seems to make other people on the trip uneasy, but Sym is totally in her element. She says:
The clamor of silence was so loud that it herded the other visitors into a nervous huddle […] Didn't worry me! […] Me, I do silence. (6.48-49)
Sonically, then, Sym is in her element. Add in the fact that she has a pseudo-romance with an Antarctic explorer inside her head and that she's always wanted to go to Antarctica, and it's clear this place is far more than an icy and isolated landscape: It's a geographic and environmental symbol for our main girl.
To dig a little deeper into this symbol, swing by the "Setting" page.
What's that? You thought Titus was a character? True, we do talk about him over in the "Characters" section… Still, though, he's definitely a symbol as well. Consider him a literary jack-of-all trades.
Titus, Sym's imaginary friend, is a floating symbol in that he represents more than one thing. First and foremost, he is a stand-in for Sym's father, who recently died. "I remember the day that Titus arrived in my head […] like some distant cousin who suddenly comes to visit" (2.1), Sym tells us. It's hardly a coincidence that it was the same day as her father's death.
On another level, Sym created Titus as a symbol of romantic love, which she's not yet ready to experience in real life. When Sym tells her friends about her imaginary boyfriend, it doesn't go over very well. "I tried to say that I was happy to stick with imagining for the time being" (1.15), she recalls, "And after that I was the mad girl—sad, frigid, and mad, all three […]" (1.16). Like a good boyfriend, Titus is always there for Sym. But being imaginary and all, he's not too demanding when it comes to sexy times.
Finally, Titus symbolizes the thoughts Sym's most afraid to acknowledge—he's like a part of herself she keeps buried deep inside. When Sym is excited about going to Antarctica, Titus is the one who seems afraid. He's also the one who first notices that Manfred and Sigurd are not who they say they are. Perhaps most importantly, Titus is skeptical of Uncle Victor, whom he refers to sarcastically as "the man who says the Earth's hollow" (17.8). Sym, as herself, can't bear to contemplate the possibility that Victor's off his rocker. But Titus? He totally can.
Welcome to Antarctica. Today our guide will be Sym, a fourteen-year-old girl who's traveling with her Uncle Victor. When it comes to the terrain, she's a dependable guide; Sym has long been obsessed with the South Pole, so she's an expert. When it comes to her life, though, she's a little less reliable. It's not that she's crazy or anything—Sym just willfully ignores the stuff that bothers her, which makes her seem a little slow or even oblivious.
As readers, we have a front-row seat to Sym's thoughts because they are dramatized as conversations with Titus, her imaginary friend. Of course, both sides of the conversation are really just Sym. "Everything Titus ever said to me could only have come from inside me. Things I've read. Things I imagined" (23.48), she tells us.
In these exchanges, Titus has a distinct point of view in that he tends to notice suspicious things well before Sym consciously acknowledges them. For example, we know (via Titus) that Sym notices signs of Manfred and Sigurd's con way before Manfred's confession because Titus tells Sym that their accents slip and notes that they only ever speak English. But again, Sym and Titus are both working from the same information. As Titus says, "Sym, I hear everything you hear" (6.63). Sometimes Sym just doesn't listen.
The book begins with every girl's dream: Sym is ripped from her Paris vacation and plopped down into Antarctica. (Hmm, wait a sec—maybe that's just Sym's dream.) Because The White Darkness has elements of mystery, we don't get all the background at once. Details will emerge as the novel unfolds, but as Sym's vacation veers off course, we're already on the edge of our seats. She's alone with her strange "Uncle" Victor, after all, on a trip that's officially not going according to plan.
Sym's Antarctic vacation is going swell until Uncle Victor blows up a plane and poisons a bunch of people. Stealing away in the night while everyone sleeps, Manfred and Sigurd join Victor and Sym for a leisurely drive along the ice shelf to find Symmes's Hole, the object of Victor's obsession. What could possibly go wrong?
Guess what? Literally everything goes wrong. It turns out that heavy vehicles and thin ice aren't exactly a match made in heaven. After a harrowing drive and an almost-fall into the abyss, Manfred comes clean with Victor—he's a con man, and there is no Symmes's Hole—so Victor murders Manfred and keeps driving, unperturbed. Soon after that, Sigurd steals the vehicle, leaving Sym and Victor to die in the cold. We're not going to lie: Things aren't looking good for our girl Sym.
Thinking he's finally found Symmes's Hole, Uncle Victor forces himself through a crack in the ice, plunging to his certain death. Sym is so sad and so spent that she doesn't have it in her to be angry with him for being a total psychopath. She's also losing her will to survive. Good old Titus is there for her, though, leading her to safety.
Sym is rescued. As she recovers on the boat ride home, Sigurd tries to convince everyone that she's lost her mind. She hasn't, though. In fact, Sym sees things clearly now—and she definitely sees Mike, a young man who's romantically interested in her. She sees Mike very clearly indeed.