In the early 19th century, Capt. John Cleves Symmes Jr. thought the Earth had two holes located at the North and South poles that led to inner worlds. “I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within,” he said, “containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other.”
The Hollow Earth theory inspired several works of literature, including “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” by Jules Verne, and, most recently, “Brother in Ice,” by Alicia Kopf.
What began for Kopf as a historical investigation of polar expeditions shifted into a critical look at her polar obsession, her family and art.
The result is this unconventional Catalan novel, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, that won an English PEN Award.
Written in short bursts, like dispatches from the Arctic, “Brother in Ice” takes readers on an unlikely journey. The table of contents looks like Kopf went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and ended up with 20 tabs on subjects ranging from British explorer Ernest Shackleton to snow globes. The most fascinating sections compare artists and explorers who, Kopf suggests, share the same ambition to make “the invisible visible.”
At various times, “Brother in Ice” reads like a diary, a travelogue, a collection of philosophical meditations and a series of historical research notes. The lack of a traditional plot is buoyed by the book’s startling pace, which makes for a fresh and invigorating read.
The wide scope of subject and style may seem freewheeling, but the book is actually structured around Symmes’s Hollow Earth theory. The narrative voice takes the form of seven concentric figures based on the author at different stages in her life. In this way, Kopf’s journey is not only northward but inward. Through her polar research, she comes to recognize it is “easier to get to the Arctic than to certain areas of one’s self.” Kopf views this interior and domestic quest as a new kind of epic, “the epic of remaining in the place where we are and enduring what life has dealt us.”
Connor Goodwin is a writer based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the Rumpus and Entropy.
By Alicia Kopf
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
And Other Stories. 320 pp. Paperback, $15.95