THE BIRTHDAY BOYS by Beryl Bainbridge is a fictional retelling of the tragic Scott Antarctic expedition which led to the deaths of all those involved. It is separated into five sections with each section being the first person account by a real life figure including Robert Scott himself. The sections are in chronological order with Scott’s own entry, the third, being the longest. It is the fifth and last entry by the ship’s captain, Lawrence Edward Oates, that is ultimately the most powerful because it reveals the fates of all the main characters.
The most positive thing I could say about the writing of this book is Bainbridge’s meticulous research not just on the expedition itself (as well as the backgrounds and relationships of the main characters) but on what people wore and ate at this time in history. I could really visualize a scene on a ship, in a pub in this point in history in England.
Bainbridge spends a lot of time with details here. She attempts to insert some quirks that make a character unique but that seems to take a backseat to her descriptions. I think it would be interesting with this type of narrative device to see more of how the characters view each other. Bainbridge does do this but not enough and it’s only the last section where we really notice it.
I also think the climax is rushed. With the previous four sections, Bainbridge takes a long time setting up the journey and the character of the people involved with it. In the fifth section, all of the sudden they’re lost in the Antarctic wilderness and doomed.
The Amundsen vs. Scott rivalry to reach the South Pole first is a fascinating story, one that needs very little embellishment to be interesting. Bainbridge does a good job with the human element here but I wish she had spent more time on the actual story.
This is the third and last Bainbridge book I’ve reviewed recently. She’s a good writer whose style shifted away from the personal and the satirical over the years but I think that style suited her work better.