Picks and Pans Review: Icefields

updated 12/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Thomas Wharton

In this prizewinning first novel from Canada, the restless cast of adventurers are haunted by an expanse of ancient sea ice in Alberta's Rocky Mountains. "I sometimes have the feeling the ice is alive," says Freya Becker, a beautiful and daring climber, and certainly it seems that way as well to young doctor and amateur botanist Ned Byrne, who is fresh from England in 1898. While on expedition, he slips into a crevasse and glimpses—or does he imagine?—a pale human form with huge wings embedded in a dark wall of ice. Byrne is rescued, but the image is frozen in his memory, and he returns over the years to wrest the secret from beneath the snow.

Arthur Conan Doyle, an avowed spiritualist, makes a cameo appearance and is more like the blustery Dr. Watson and less like the inquiring Holmes. But for Byrne and his companions, past and present mysteriously collide with the primal force of a glacier that scours the terrain and yet sustains the most fragile flower. Ice, when it is touched, can sear the flesh; in Icefields it fires the imagination. (Washington Square, $12)

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