The Ice Museum : In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, Paperback Book

The Ice Museum : In Search of the Lost Land of Thule Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Joanna Kavenna went north in search of the Atlantis of the Arctic, the mythical land of Thule.

Seen once by an Ancient Greek explorer and never found again, mysterious Thule came to represent the vast and empty spaces of the north.

Fascinated for many years by Arctic places, Kavenna decided to travel through the lands that have been called Thule, from Shetland to Iceland, Norway, Estonia, and Greenland.

On her journey, she found traces of earlier writers and travellers, all compelled by the idea of a land called Thule: Richard Francis Burton, William Morris, Anthony Trollope, as well as the Norwegian Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

She met wilderness-lovers; poets writing epics about ice; Inuit musicians and Polar scientists trying to understand the silent snows.

But she came to discover that a darkness also inhabits Thule: the Thule Society, obsessed with the purity of the Nordic peoples; the 'war children' - the surviving progeny of Nazi attempts to foster an Aryan race; as well as ice-bound relics of the Cold War.

Finally she arrived in Svalbard, a beautiful Arctic archipelago, at the edge of the frozen ocean. Blending travelogue, reportage, memoir, and literary essay, Joanna Kavenna explores the changing life of the far North in the 20th Century.

The Ice Museum is a mesmerising story of idealism and ambition, wars and destruction, survival and memories, set against the haunting backdrop of the northern landscape.


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Review by

Like many other people, I love the niche of polar exploration-themed books, so when I saw this, subtitled "In search of the lost land of Thule", I knew I had to have it. Well, it's not the first frozen-north-themed book I have disliked - that was Cold Earth - but this is certainly the first one I have found boring. I think the biggest problem here was that Kavenna has decided to adopt the ironic/funny approach to travel writing. I am never particularly fond of this - I find it distancing and belittling, and I would much rather my travel writers engage with the place that they are and explain things to me that I wouldn't figure out otherwise, rather than pointing at things and saying 'Look - isn't it funny'. What makes it worse is that Kavenna is not particularly good at the funny, either.This book was a string of missed opportunities - best exemplified by the Iceland chapter. Kavenna starts off by mentioning that Iceland was a frequent stop for (British) Victorian tourists - I'd never heard that, and was fascinated to know more, but Kavenna swept past it with a quick summary. Shortly afterwards she spends exactly the same amount of wordage giving us a verbatim report of a tiresome bit of patter by a man trying to drum up tourist interest in his attraction. Aaargh! Yes, in this modern world, you can go anywhere you want and ironically highlight the disparity between the tourist dream and the tourist nightmare. But what does it add?To be fair, Kavenna returns to the Victorian tourist experience during the chapter, but still with the arch summary. After the Geysir, she says, "Tweedie and Burton and Morris trotted off, in search of something still stranger, the women teetering side-saddle on their horses, in line with social decorum, the men shouting orders at their guides. Not bad, they all agreed, exploding water, rather interesting, rather strange." WHY NOT QUOTE THEM? It's almost as if she's afraid to take her subject seriously.Anyway, I think that people who like the ironic approach to travel writing would enjoy this book, because there are some interesting adventures in it. But it was a bad fit with this particular reader.

Review by

(22 Jan 2012 – birthday present from Gill)The kind of travel / quest book I like best, where the author sets of in search of, in this case, the fabled land of Thule. Was it the north of England, Scotland, the Shetlands, Iceland, Greenland, even? Or back round to Estonia or Norway? In her travels she comes across writers of antiquity and all points up to the modern day, taking a roughly chronological approach based on the theories, and looks at the people behind the theories, whether Norse scholars, presidents of countries or pro-Nazi movements. Of course, my favourite chapters were the section on Iceland, where she not only looks at William Morris and his theories, but good old W.H. Auden and the earlier women travellers I have read about in the last few years. But it’s all beautifully written, lyrical, fair, human and honest. Good scholarship, good writing and fascinating people and places to write about, all within a classic travel narrative in which, wandering the wastes of the northernmost US Airforce base, the author wonders how she will settle back into her London life.

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