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book review

Kathleen WinterJohn Morstad/The Globe and Mail

In her slim 1990 book The Writing Life, the American poet, essayist, nature-writer and novelist Annie Dillard writes, "Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?" It's a lofty ambition, for both readers and writers, and one that is, sadly, all too rarely aspired to, let alone met. But Dillard continues, "Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?"

Dillard comes, perhaps inevitably, to mind upon reading Boundless, the new book from Kathleen Winter, whose novel Annabel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Writer's Trust and the Governor General's Award in 2010.

Just how momentous a year that was for the Newfoundland-raised writer, who lives in Montreal, only becomes fully clear upon reading Boundless. Invited at the last moment, and embracing a newfound openness to adventure, Winter set forth that year on a journey through the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Kugluktuk in Nunavut, following, in places, the traces of the lost Franklin Expedition. Boundless not only chronicles that outward journey, but the inward journey which resulted for Winter, blending travel account with memoir, history with nature writing, a strong narrative with a keen meditative sense. It's an impressive book, one which belongs alongside the best of writers like Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams, writers who so root their work in themselves and the natural world that the work itself becomes transcendent.

Winter captures shipboard life with insight and a deft wit, from the "womb-like aspect to being in a cabin in a ship's belly, especially at night, when you are lying in the bunk before sleep comes" to her fellow travellers, including the increasingly harried but unflappable translator in charge of a Japanese tour group, historian and writer Ken McGoogan and singer-songwriter Nathan Rogers, son of iconic folksinger Stan Rogers, whose song Northwest Passage serves as a touchstone for many of the passengers. That sensitivity to human nature extends to dry land, through Winter's encounters with the residents of the settlements the ship visits, the delicate, often halting interactions of cultures not quite meeting.

That sensibility also extends to the natural world. While Winter can't quite wrap her head around the lectures given by the shipboard geologist (one of the book's running jokes), she is a keen observer, noticing details and building possible narratives around a feather, a small fern, a jawbone or a bit of lichen. That awareness of the natural world – and, relatedly, the state of the indigenous peoples of the North – increases as the voyage lengthens, and Winter finds herself pulled away from the brash, impulsive, consumptive volume of western culture, into something smaller yet grander, more intimate but more universal.

This movement, this pull on Winter, will not come as a surprise to readers. Throughout the book, the voyage serves as a vehicle for an exploration of her own past, experiences suggesting or prompting memories. Thus, the beginning of the voyage brings on a reminiscence of the "Viking funeral" after the death of her first husband, when, at the prompting of her brother Michael's partner Christine, Winter burned his belongings on a small raft off the Newfoundland shore. "I could feel," Winter writes, "the satisfaction of watching the destruction of everything that had tried to trap and hold me to sad or difficult memories." Winter's life, as depicted in Boundless, has long been characterized by wandering, by a sense of dislocation and unrootedness: brought to Canada from England as a young girl, she grew up feeling neither English nor Canadian. The weeks depicted in Boundless, a journey into some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, serve to bring her home to herself, truly, for what seems to be the first time.

Boundless reads, as the title suggests, as a book free of borders and limitations, with Winter slipping effortlessly between the personal and the external, between the closely observed and the historical. It is a deep book, meditative and thoughtful, but it is also compulsively readable, driven by an inexorable narrative drive and its keen attention to humanity in all its manifold complexities. It is the sort of book one will finish and return to. As Dillard challenged, of herself and of writing in general, it both heightens life and plumbs its deepest mysteries, laying bare the beauty of both the world and the soul.

Robert Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.