Review: “Iceberg” by Paul Kavanagh

The e-mail scams are notorious:

Congatulions!! You have one the Crackpot prize in our draw. All-inclusive cruise around the Caribbean, for you and your loved won.* Just call 0800-111-222 for detales.

*Certain costs not covered. These include, but are not restricted to: transport, taxes, food and beverages, entertainment, on-shore trips, and accommodation.

The plot of Kavanagh’s darkly humorous illustrated novella, Iceberg, turns on such a competition. Phoebe and Don, a timid couple who have settled into mildly disappointing lives, “win” the eponymous iceberg. Instead of consigning the e-mail to the oblivion of delete, they pay their “prize fee” and set out on a journey from their (“grim”) Northern town through Europe to Africa, and south through Africa to the Antarctic.

On the way they shed, as we might expect, their fearfulness and social constraints, the smallness of their lives (in the opening lines they are compared, in masterly fashion, to cockroaches) giving way to the mind-bending infinity of existence:

Life had unclogged their ears, removed the curtains from their eyes, uncemented their nostrils…and as they stared out at the expanding and contracting horizons…they laughed as only those that have stood on the precipice can laugh.

The odyssey of Iceberg follows a quasi-mythological, three-part structure: “Going Down”, which situates us in the depressing lives of our protagonists–the bullying landlord, the traumatized dog, the unrecognized novel, gangs on the streets, a senile parent, cowardice, long-abandoned hopes; “Going Up”, which traces their bumbling hitch-hike through Europe and Africa, as they gradually jettison all that has been familiar (money, cheese sandwiches, beer), and gain new intimacy with what had been strange (the sea, the cold, the night sky); and “Iceberg”, in which Phoebe and Don live on the iceberg, cultivate the iceberg, build on the iceberg, until they come a full circle, albeit with the growth and changes provoked by their journey to make a difference in the settled life they begin to rebuild. In this sense, Iceberg is a myth both modern and timeless: confrontation with otherness and death generating a more intense connection with oneself and one’s loved ones.

Yet Iceberg is not a simple fairytale, a story of metamorphosis and arrival. Even once they have adapted to the iceberg, they are affected by their ties to society: “unable to cope with the desolation,” Don tries to shoot himself with the flare gun; they become paparazzi targets; and when the iceberg drifts into a cloud of fog, back into isolation, they become depressed and drink “to douse their sadness.” Nor is their relationship entirely straightforward. “We are Phoebe and Don,” says Don, epitomising the dual perspective that runs throughout the book.

“You know what they say about a Jag,” said Don and his seat fell back. He had a nefarious smile upon his face. “This is not a Jag,” said Phoebe smiling proudly, climbing out of the car. Before Don had a chance to bring his plan to fruition Phoebe climbed out of the car. “We have work to do, silly boy, work,” said Phoebe.

Here, the lack of paragraph breaks obscures changes in speaker, blurring one voice into the other. The repetition, meanwhile, separates out these voices, layers them one on top of the other, ensuring the reader’s awareness of multiple, diverging thoughts and reactions. We are not allowed to enter utterly into either character’s mind,  but slip back and forth between the two, gaining the same kind of restricted intimacy with each that they have with each other. And thus we gradually become aware something is always missing, somebody’s voice always goes unheard.

Alex Chilvers captures this perfectly in his minimalist illustrations. A cover illustration (two deckchairs looking from the iceberg over the ocean), and one black-and-white print at the beginning of each section: a profile of the bullying landlord (surreal dog tattoo on his neck); the torchlit cave paintings that mark the climax of their fears; the iceberg, a dog floating towards it on an abandoned sign (-lton, to be interpreted at will). Don and Phoebe themselves appear only as the back of Phoebe’s head in picture one, as spectators to the cave paintings, and as the two empty deckchairs on the cover. Avoiding direct portraits of the protagonist, Chilvers casts his illustrations from their merged perspectives, and keeps us in a state of limited knowledge of them.

Iceberg is a bare-bones myth of transportation, self-conscious in its use of language, its exposure of its protagonists’ inner workings, and its elisions. It is an odd story, and it is a familiar story. Its narrative describes the end of the world, and also reveals that world as constructed and unnecessary, artificial, letting new life grow from what collapses. Indeed, this is perhaps the paradoxical truth that is central to the book: the growth of new life from what is transient, as is captured most vividly in the iceberg itself, burgeoning with vegetation, fruit trees, and flowers, as the ice melts steadily back into the sea that formed it:

Specks of life infiltrated their island. Where the ice had melted rock protruded. An incongruity of green appeared in patches. Nodes of life sparkled. Moss grew prodigiously…The sea filled with life showed that life and death are married and could never be divorced and they cherished this.

Iceberg is published by Honest Publishing and is available on Amazon.

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Jessica Wright is an editor, translator and poet currently living in a small glass-making town in the West Midlands. Most recently, she has come runner-up in the James Kirkup Annual Memorial Poetry Competition, run by Red Squirrel Press. She also runs a weekly writing circle, and an online, occasional poetry co-composition group.