Until this book, the author Gerard Beirne was unfamiliar to me. I am more familiar with his author son Luke, who has penned two fine novels for Baraka Books, Foxhunt and Blacklion. The Thickness of Ice takes place in Churchill, Manitoba a remote settlement on the shores of Hudson’s Bay. Churchill is a thriving port for grain shipments in the compressed seasons of spring/summer/fall when the Bay is clear of ice. Historically, it is also the site of an abandoned rocket range, a radar installation (“Golf Balls”) and the wreck of the MV Ithaca (1960), all of which can still be seen today.
All of these historic sites figure in the telling of Wade Sinclair’s story in The Thickness of Ice. It is told in the first person, as Wade recounts the events of his life since coming to Churchill many decades ago. Living alone next to the rocket range, he works at the shipping port in summer and measures the thickness of the ice once a week as soon as the Bay freezes over until a point in the spring when the ice is thin enough for the icebreakers to open shipping lanes. The metaphor of measuring the ice is carried skilfully throughout the book, as after meeting Esther, a summer visitor, a long-term relationship is started. Eventually, Esther arrives in Churchill to live with Wade. At this point (Wade is 52), they have both lived through failed relationships, have no children and are looking for companionship, which they quickly find in each other. Wade feels that the figurative “ice” underneath him and Esther is thick enough to hold them both up. One day, as they are measuring the ice, Esther asks Wade:
“One hundred and sixty-five,” she called out into the cold morning, her breath gusting in front of her. A haze of mist rose from the surface of the cove, shimmered around us. “It is June, and the ice is one hundred and sixty-five centimetres thick. The sun is shining. I can barely see you, but I know you are there. The world is willing yet to hold us up.” She reached out and touched my arm. “Will it ever let us down?”
I should have answered, yes. Yes, it will let us down as surely as this ice beneath our feet will melt and disappear.
Why does Wade feel this way? Because he has a secret, one that he has become reconciled to in his loneliness, and at the same time one he fears that Esther will discover. The ice, getting thinner underneath them, will crack and the Bay will swallow up their relationship.
Wade’s secret surrounds the disappearance of his best friend Jack some twenty years before and the corresponding breakup of Wade’s relationship with Tess, a Dene girl estranged from her family who works as a schoolteacher in Churchill. Upon learning of this unsolved case of Jack’s disappearance, Esther decides that solving it will “help” Wade understand what became of his best friend. Of course, Wade knows the truth, but cannot bring himself to tell Esther.
Clever writing and pacing make this story not only believable but serve to draw the reader in as all the characters are likeable in their way, but all have their flaws, cracks in their characters, to continue the ice metaphor. Beirne’s protagonists stand in stark relief against the background of Churchill, a town of mostly transient workers.
I liked this novel from the start. One can tell when good writing is unfolding right before their eyes. Perhaps it is the maturity of the writer, the middle-aged protagonists or the setting, but all three factors combine to make The Thickness of Ice one of my 2024 favourites.
About the Author
Gerard Beirne holds Canadian and Irish citizenship. He has published three novels, three books of poetry, and a collection of short stories. His short story collection In a Time of Drought and Hunger was shortlisted for The Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Gerard has lived in Northern Manitoba and also taught English at the University of New Brunswick. He now teaches Creative Writing and Literature at ATU Sligo, Ireland.
- Publisher : Baraka Books (April 1 2024)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 360 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771863390
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771863391
James M. Fisher is the Editor Emeritus of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.