Gavin Francis, Counterpoint, 304 pages, $28
It is difficult to read this engaging memoir without a smile on one’s face, such is the author’s enthusiasm for the world’s southernmost continent and its endemic penguin species, the Emperor. “Empire Antarctica,” which was published in Britain at the end of last year and has just come out in America, tells the story of Gavin Francis’ time as a doctor at the Halley Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey base formerly known as Ice Station Zebra.
His 14-month role as “Zdoc” comes at the perfect time for Francis. After attending medical school in Edinburgh, he finds himself increasingly discomfited by the promise of a high-achieving career and a life of obligations and responsibilities. Eager for mental freedom, he sees Antarctica as the place to work out what he plans to do for the rest of his life.
In many ways this “empire of ice and of isolation” fulfills its promise, but the peace he seeks is at times hard to find. His responsibilities include not only medically treating his 13 base colleagues and training them in first aid, but also helping out with base chores: collecting and packaging waste, cutting tunnels for plumbing and wiring, and shoveling snow to be melted for drinking water.
This busyness, combined with communal meals and endless socializing, turned the base camp into a “paradoxical space that liberated as it imprisoned.” In search of solitude, he finds he must escape the camp’s day-to-day interactions and calls on his time. He does so by skiing the same route every day, drawing comfort and calm from the fresh air and this “binary world of ice and sky.”