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Monday, May 1, 2017

Polar Literature (and Review of THE SURFACING by Cormac James)

It’s May 1 and hopefully winter is well and truly gone, so it’s time to get ready for warmer weather.  To cool off on a hot day, there’s nothing like a “cold” read.

I came across this great article in The New Yorker about nineteenth-century polar fiction:  It mentions works by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Dickens.

I’ve read a couple of books that are examples of twenty-first-century polar fiction.

Last year, I read The North Water by Ian McGuire:   It is 1859 and the owner of the whaling ship Volunteer is putting together a crew.  Amongst that crew is Henry Drax, a harpooner who within the opening pages shows himself to be a murderer.  Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, a decent but weak man addicted to opium who serves as ship’s doctor.  The rest of the crew members are a rather unpleasant lot, and the trip soon becomes nightmarish with violence being routine.  And, as expected in the Arctic setting, there is soon a struggle for survival.  See my review at

My other reading of modern polar fiction was The Surfacing by Cormac James: It is 1850; the Impetus is a ship looking for Franklin’s lost expedition in the high Arctic. Dispatched to the most northerly unchartered polar region, it becomes stuck in ice with a pregnant stowaway on board. Here’s my review of the book:
3 Stars

The novel is narrated in third person from the point of view of Lieutenant Richard Morgan, the ship’s second-in-command and the father of the expected child. The story is much more about his journey of self-discovery than it is about a journey of exploration.

Morgan’s usual modus operandi is to run away from problems and responsibilities. When faced with fatherhood, his initial reaction is to flee; when away from the stranded ship, he admits that “part of him did not want to return” (157). He feels he has not “any [attention and affection] to give” (234). Of course, since the crew is totally isolated and unable to communicate with the outside world, Morgan has no real option but to accept the role of father: “He would muster something, he supposed, to meet the need” (234). As one would expect, his transformation begins with the arrival of the child: “For the first time in a long time, he heard a call to his better self” (250).

This is certainly not a novel of plot. For long periods of time, very little happens. It could be said that the book is about the human capacity to endure. Finding themselves in a hostile, unforgiving landscape, the crew must strive to survive. There is much description of shipboard life where the men are forced to live in close proximity with crew members. Obviously, there is a great deal of tedium.

The problem is that the reader experiences tedium when reading the book. The almost 400 pages could be halved and the themes still be well developed. Reading should not feel like hauling a whaling boat across a frozen wasteland. And after sacrificing and enduring, the reader is left with few answers since the conclusion is open-ended. All that is known for certain is that Franklin and his men are not found; history tells us that. In fact, it was only last year that the remains of Erebus were found by Canadian scientists and archaeologists.

I had difficulty identifying with any of the characters. The ship is an all-male enclave except for Kitty Rink who upsets the equilibrium. Unfortunately, she is also a problem for this reader. Her motivation, for example, is unclear. She wants to escape her life in Greenland, but why would she put her life and that of her child in jeopardy? It cannot be love she expects from Morgan who shows himself clearly to be emotionally repressed; for him, she is nothing but a temporary diversion during a stopover. And when she has one last opportunity to escape a journey she fully knows will be unrelentingly harsh, if not deadly, she doesn’t take it?

Several of the excerpts of reviews included at the beginning of the book praise the author’s poetic prose. There is certainly a lyrical quality to the writing but, for me, it is insufficient compensation for the lack of plot in a lengthy novel. Descriptions of endless snow and ice need not be endless.

This book seems to be an attempt to extend an Arctic exploration narrative into something resembling interpretive literature. Unfortunately, it has insufficient adventure to be the former and includes too much unnecessary detail to qualify as the best of literary fiction.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. 

To get in the mood, why not listen to Stan Rodgers sing his "Northwest Passage":