In 1616, a sailor on a whaling ship makes a bet.

He wagers that he can survive the winter in one of the coldest, loneliest places then known - an island in the remote Svalbard archipelago, between Norway and the North Pole.

The crew of his ship, the Heartsease, is confident he will be dead by the time the ice thaws enough to allow their return next summer.

In the fading glow of the last days of sunlight, the ship sets sail, with a young sailor, Thomas Goodlard, watching the sticklike figure of Thomas Cave disappear from view.

"And who is he, Thomas Cave?" writes British travel writer Georgina Harding, in her first novel, a luminescent diamond of imagination and spare, but vivid, writing.

"The man from Suffolk, strayed into the empty enormity of the north. A man of experience, unlike that boy, with a life behind him. A grown man without love or issue. A wintry stalk of a man, dried up and hollow inside. A man who makes the wooden heels of shoes, who used to be a sailor, who once played the violin. A man who lets a ghost draw his thoughts, and speaks to her as if she is real as himself."

Cave has had a life before, one that ended unhappily. Clearly, this is partly an attempt at purification.

So he spends the remaining daylight days hunting and gathering, then retreats into his shelter, a 10-foot square cabin with double walls, with sand poured into the space between to keep out the insistent wind. Over top of the cabin, a tent adds rough shelter for some of the stores and meats the crew has left.

The 240-page novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, published in hardcover in February, brought barely a ripple of attention. Happily, Blackstone Audio, whose staff has a knack for discovering unheralded gems, recently released an unabridged audio version, (5.5 hours, $45).

John Lee, a west coast actor with a deep voice, imposing diction and a facility for accents, narrates. The story, tailor-made for audio, combined with Lee's performance is captivating.

With the ears fully engaged, the mind's eye is free to wander north, to where the aurora borealis shimmers, where the full moon casts a violet glow on the white landscape. And "whenever the temperature dips sharply, the place resounds with the writhe of the ice."

Cave himself shivers beneath animal skins in his cell. Anything more than a few feet from the fire freezes. His possessions include a Bible, a fiddle and cobbler's tools.

But this is no Jack London story. Cave begins to hallucinate, seeing visions of his wife and newborn son. As to which is worse - his inner demons or those without - most people can predict.

Cave keeps a log, both to keep his mind focused and to inform those who might find him dead. "I pray to the Lord that He may hold me sane as well as alive until I shall see His blessed sun again," he writes, in the distinctive dialog that Lee delivers with smoothness and grace. It's evocative, not jarring.

I couldn't tell whether Cave would make it. Will his fall through the ice kill him? The avalanche? A polar bear? Or will the crew find him come summer, altered but alive?

Either way, Cave gains an appreciation for this hostile territory, coming to regret the wholesale slaughter that typified those years, when crew members skinned seals alive and whales were nearly hunted out.

"No man there, no devils, nor even, I came to think, a God, or not any God that we know," Cave notes. "Only itself. And then we came."

Contact Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. To read recent columns and hear audio clips, go to http://go.philly.com/sandybauers.