Alec Ramsey, sixty-three years old, is the last survivor of the polar expedition of the mid-1920’s in which Stephen Leeming died in the last dash for safety. Ramsey and another man, Dr. Lloyd, who were with Leeming, buried him on the trail and managed to save themselves.
Ramsey, who was a sportsman of some repute before the trip and who has continued to have something of a public life, has a reputation for being reticent and sometimes thin-skinned about Leeming’s death. The novel opens with Ramsey’s walking out of a Rotary Club meeting at which he was to speak, enraged because of innocent, if callous, prying into the matter. This sensitivity often affects his work for the school, and it is known that he is often too emotionally fragile to fulfill his duties. Two assistants, one of them, Pelham, understanding but often irritated by having to do much of Ramsey’s work, and another, Kable, ambitious and unscrupulous, are waiting apprehensively for Ramsey to retire.
Ramsey is also having difficulty in his personal life. A man identified only as “the poet” is badgering the unfortunate Ramsey to allow him to write on the old explorer’s Antarctic experience (despite this, the poet becomes a friend and confidant). Ramsey’s wife is not always sympathetic to his aching, debilitating sense of guilt. Despite the fact that the incident occurred more than forty years ago, Ramsey cannot forget two things: that immediately prior to the expedition he slept with Leeming’s wife, and that Leeming, although dying following a stroke, may still have been alive when Ramsey and Dr. Lloyd (a physician who had declared him dead) left Leeming behind. The doctor, on his own deathbed several years later, was teasingly ambiguous about the matter.
Ella Ramsey knows about the sexual adventure, but Ramsey has kept the second secret to himself. It is announced that members of an American polar expedition believe that they have come across Leeming’s body, and Ramsey identifies bits of equipment which were left at the site. The question is not only whether they have actually found him but also what to do with the body Ramsey wants it left alone, in part because it seems fitting that the great explorer should remain where he fell, but also in fear of the discovery of some evidence which might indicate that Leeming was not dead when Ramsey and the doctor went off to save themselves.
The rest of the novel occupies itself with a mix of university chicanery centered on Ramsey’s increasingly erratic behavior under the pressure of constant intrusions by the media, and on the permutations and combinations of political fighting within the closed community of academics vying for power privilege, and occasional sexual favors. Ramsey’s problems take a nasty turn when Belle Leeming’s nephew, a notoriously undependable junior academic at the university, offers to go to Antarctica to retrieve his uncle’s body. Ramsey knows that he will turn the whole thing into a circus and that, if there is any question of irregularity about the death, the nephew will make a thundering scandal of it.
Eventually, Ramsey goes himself and discovers Belle Leeming on the same plane. At the last minute, he loses his nerve and attempts to stop the disinterment of the body, but he is literally knocked flat for his efforts. The body proves that Ramsey had no need to feel guilty about leaving his leader behind, and Belle Leeming educates him concerning the sexual life of his hero and dispels his guilt over their old erotic encounter. Ramsey is as new a man as he can be at sixty-two and does not retire, much to the chagrin of Pelham, the good man, and Kable, the dirty thruster.
Donahugh, R. H. Review in Library Journal. XCV (March 15, 1970), p. 1048.
Keesing, Nancy. Australian Postwar Novelists, 1975.
Keneally, Thomas. “Origin of a Novel,” in Hemisphere. XIII, no. 10 (1969).
Kiernan, Brian. “Fable or Novel? The Development of Thomas Keneally,” in Meanjin Quarterly. XXXI (1972), pp. 489-493.
Kiernan, Brian. Images of Society and Nature, 1971.
Levin, Martin. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXII (September 27, 1970), p. 48.
Ramsom, W. S. The Australian Experience: Cultural Essays on Australian Novels, 1974.
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