It’s 1938, and the tramp freighter Austral sails from Madagascar to the windswept Kerguelen Islands, perhaps the most desolate place humans have ever colonised. Its mission: to collect the remaining members of the Islands’ failed French outpost and return them to civilisation as the island fades into history. The ship’s passengers:
- Helena Heath, a French journalist looking to write a story about the outpost’s failure and the death of Gallic colonialism
- Clive Albright, an English astronomer keen to examine the Islands’ 19th-century observatory and monitor the upcoming occultation of Regulus
- Jeremiah Pekovic, a Serbian doctor desperately searching for his missing son, who saw the Kerguelens in strange and terrifying dreams
- Edgar and Andree de la Rue, a husband-and-wife team of geologists who regularly visit the Islands to unearth fossils and take basalt samples.
The trip to the islands is uneventful, marked only by bad dreams for Dr Pekovic and Andree’s occasional transgressive flirting with/at Helena. A day away from the Islands, though, the ship picks up German transmissions from a nearby boat. Helena translates it to learn that the Tenerife, a fishing schooner, is also bound for the Kerguelens, and that its crew are sending farewell messages to loved ones and military commanders back at home. That evening, the passengers wonder about the message; Andree coaxes Helena down to the cargo hold, where they fuck among crates full of dynamite; Dr Pekovic dreams of bones strewn across volcanic hillsides; and Professor Albright drinks a lot of tea.
The next day, the Austral arrive at the Kerguelens – a bleak yet beautiful collection of volcanic islands near the Antarctic, where harsh winds constantly scream across glaciers and cliffs. It docks at Port Courveux, unloading supplies for the three families that make up the failed sheep station/outpost; it then heads off to restock at the Crozet Islands before returning to collect everyone in two weeks. The de la Rues embrace the women of the outpost before trudging inland on their expedition, and the others meet their hosts – bossy Pamela Menager and her teenage daughter Leone, matronly Claudette Petit and the emotionally unstable Adele le Gallodec.
The passengers settle as best they can – Helena with the Petits, Albright with the Menagers and Pekovic with the Gallodecs. Albright and Pekovic both notice the jewellery worn by their hostesses – slightly crude silver pendants and bracelets that house unusual yellow-green crystals. With time to kill before dinner, the three go for a walk, trudging across mossy plateaus to Cape Kerraint to discover a cairn of stones left by the first French settlers of the Islands. Albright spots birds wheeling around something inland, but rather than risk unplanned explorations, they head back to the tiny settlement before night falls…