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Icebreaker by Horatio Clare (Book Review) @ChattoBooks #NonFictionNovember


Sent to me by Penguin in exchange for an honest review.

Release Date: 09/11/17

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

ISBN: 978-1784741952

Format: Hardback, 224pp

Genre: Non-Fiction

Rating: 3.5/5

Summed up in a word: Experience

First Impressions

I barely ever get the chance to read any travel NF and I was elated when Penguin sent Icebreaker my way. I know very little about Finland and their ways so this was an excellent insight into their culture from many different perspectives. I enjoyed the glorious imagery, the well mapped out history and the cultural explanations that accompanied Horatio Clare’s foray into Lapland and the thick ice that covers the Bay of Bothnia and beyond. For those who love to go out of their comfort zone, this is perfect for you.

Book Synopsis

‘We are celebrating a hundred years since independence this year: how would you like to travel on a government icebreaker?’

A message from the Finnish embassy launches Horatio Clare on a voyage around an extraordinary country and an unearthly place, the frozen Bay of Bothnia, just short of the Arctic circle. Travelling with the crew of Icebreaker Otso, Horatio, whose last adventure saw him embedded on Maersk container vessels for the bestseller Down to the Sea in Ships, discovers stories of Finland, of her mariners and of ice.

Finland is an enigmatic place, famous for its educational miracle, healthcare and gender equality – as well as Nokia, Angry Birds, saunas, questionable cuisine and deep taciturnity. Aboard Otso Horatio gets to know the men who make up her crew, and explores Finland’s history and character. Surrounded by the extraordinary colours and conditions of a frozen sea, he also comes to understand something of the complexity and fragile beauty of ice, a near-miraculous substance which cools the planet, gives the stars their twinkle and which may hold all our futures in its crystals.

My Review

“He leads me aboard. Otso is slipper-shaped, a low stern rising and flaring to a wide bow, In the centre the raked white pyramid of her superstructure, smartly striped with Finnish blue, rises ten storeys above the waterline. Stickled with ladders, gantries and pipes, she feels tough and competent, smelling of steel, refuse and diesel. Entry is via a small hatchway with a high sill. The corridors are narrow and warm, scented with coffee and cooking – spicy chicken? She seems well worn rather than hard-driven, scrubbed and brushed; like all of the Finland I have seen, she is impeccably clean.” Horatio Clare, Icebreaker.

I am on the fence about Icebreaker. On the one hand it is a fascinating and adventurous travel diary written by Horatio Clare that takes the reader on a unique voyage into the frozen seas of North West Finland. On the other hand it is a guide on the rich historical events and economical/cultural traits that made Finland what it is today. I was intrigued and engrossed by HC’s journey on to the Bay of Bothnia and beyond; as well as amazed by all the interesting and riveting factoids about what makes Finland a great place to live. But I found the fact that HC jumped between the two styles so often very jarring and it certainly affected my enjoyment overall.

Horatio Clare is invited to spend 10 days at sea on the Finnish Icebreaker Otso (a colossal vessel complete with two saunas) to see what the crew experience day-to-day and how they work. I would have to class this as an account of ‘extreme tourism’ as there is a lot at risk to each sailor who does this vital job. HC captures the essence of the ship over the course of his trip and I was amazed by the dynamic of Otso and her crew. The importance of the job, the homey feeling upon the ship, the highs, the lows and how each crew member understands the ice.

HC is a ship connoisseur and fanatic and it certainly shows. His adventure is one of pure fascination and his descriptive narrative style of writing really captured my attention. He sets the scene of each day exquisitely and I was pulled in by the beauty of HC observations whether natural or human. He builds up meaningful relationships and knowledge over the course of the trip; an experience that he gladly shares with us all.

The gorgeous views, the harsh weather conditions, the life and death scenarios and the dedicated crew really captured my attention and I enjoyed my time upon the frozen seas of Lapland. Otso and it’s crew work hard to keep key trade routes clear and save ships that are either stuck in the ice (which can freeze as fast as it is broken) or find themselves in trouble. HC’s writes about geography, physics of ice, history, humanity and the environment. Icebreaker has plenty to offer any reader, especially if they are looking to emigrate.

The other, very distinct, side to Icebreaker is HC’s humble promotion of Finland as a country and it’s diverse history. HC is obviously a fan of the country and makes his case many times over about how well Finland functions and how it is pioneering it’s way into the future. HC is so convincing in his discussion of Finland that a lot of the time I was reading, it made me actually want to move there (though I don’t do cold so no). The rich (and war ridden) history of Finland, the art of Icebreaking, the future of the environment, economic stability and the eerie and fascinating mythology surrounding the frozen seas forms the other portion of this curious and surprisingly in-depth tale.

I certainly did enjoy the beautiful, sophisticated and appealing side to Otso and HC’s adventure. I thought that his detail and connections were well put and added a satisfactory air of knowledge. The scientific and explorative nature of the book kept me reading until the end but it was at times a bumpy read. The main issue I had with the text was mainly that it jumped between present and past so much that I found it hard to keep track of HC’s point at times.

When HC is in the moment, connecting with nature or the crew I was having a great time. But blink and your elsewhere delving into another subject or topic and I had to go back to see where it all had changed. It was frustrating at times but I feel that HC had a lot to cover in such a small amount of pages. HC is a scrupulous and thorough historian/traveller and that comes across in his writing. That may suit your reading style but I had more trouble than I would have wanted trying to connect to his journey. 

What I think every reader will connect with is the condition of the environment. HC sees the changes with his own eyes and has written this book as an open letter to the world to keep in mind the damage that has been caused and the changes that will inevitably follow. This book is not only about tourism and connected with the world. It is also a somber reflection of ramifications and consequences if we don’t do something about the environment soon.

Overall I am really glad I had the chance to enjoy this insight into a brave and noble operation. These men risk their lives to protect their country and those who travel the treacherous seas. HC honoured the men, women and country perfectly; I just felt that the read could have been a smoother affair. I will definitely be returning to re-read Icebreaker as it offers a lot of information on the first time around.

Pick up a copy of Icebreaker here: Penguin / Amazon UK / Goodreads

About Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare is the bestselling author of the memoirs Running for the Hills and Truant and the travel books A Single Swallow (which follows the birds’ migration from South Africa to the UK), Down to the Sea in Ships (the story of two voyages on container vessels) and Orison for a Curlew, a journey in search of one of the world’s rarest birds. His books for children include Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot and Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds. Horatio’s essays and reviews appear on BBC radio and in the Financial Times, the Observer and theSpectator, among other publications. He lives with his family in West Yorkshire.


3 thoughts on “Icebreaker by Horatio Clare (Book Review) @ChattoBooks #NonFictionNovember

  1. Excellent review! This sounds interesting but I also don’t like when topics shift so much and so quickly if it’s not smoothly done. Also: “HC is so convincing in his discussion of Finland that a lot of the time I was reading, it made me actually want to move there (though I don’t do cold so no).” So funny! I was only in Finland once and briefly, in June, and it was sooooo cold! I can’t imagine in winter. Loved reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review and it just made me smile… being from Estonia, Finland is just across the sea from us and I have visited many times. To this day I curse myself for not going to Finland instead of Ireland because at least then, I’d have saunas. Finnish and Estonian sauna culture is quite similar so it does not at all surprise me there was saunas on the that vessel 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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