The Surfacing by Cormac James
In 1845 an entire expedition of over a hundred men led by Sir John Franklin simply disappeared in their attempt to find a way from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the fabled ‘North West passage’ in the Arctic reaches of Canada. The fate of the Franklin expedition, which is the context of ‘The Surfacing’, still has the power to generate not only fiction but also headlines; the first of the two ships belonging to this expedition was located just a few months ago. And in general, accounts of polar exploration continue to both fascinate and appall us. In our era of continuous surveillance and communication, these experiences of years of isolation and hardship can feel as psychologically remote to us as descriptions of medieval warfare.
‘The Surfacing’ ostensibly follows the fortunes of one of several expeditions who were launched to discover what had happened to Franklin and his men. The story is told from the point of view of Morgan, the second-in-command on ‘The Impetus’. When the ship stops off en route at a small village in Greenland and Morgan makes the acquaintance of Kitty, a Danish woman living there, the reader can easily anticipate the conflict that will arise as a result of her later discovered on board, pregnant with Morgan’s child.
But the book disdains the obvious route. The stowaway is accepted, almost as a matter of course, and the fact that she is pregnant seems to be welcomed. The officers and men look after her, they make her furniture and she gets a warm cabin to herself. Only Morgan feels any psychological discomfort, but that is clearly secondary to the main problem of how to make progress in the hostile polar environment. Very soon the boat is trapped in the rapidly growing sea ice and Morgan finds himself in command.
The real conflict is in the mind – what is the best course of action? Should they abandon the boat and sledge to the nearest settlement, risking death by hypothermia in the snow and ice? Or should they stay on board and possibly starve to death? These are problems that can be considered by the application of logic, and by using experience gleaned from previous expeditions. But nothing prepares Morgan for what happens to him when the baby is born, and that is the true theme of the book.
Like the men in the ship, the reader feels marooned in this novel. The context fades away, the fate of Franklin is hardly ever discussed. People’s former lives are rarely referred to, letters from home aren’t particularly welcomed and the reason for Kitty deciding to abandon her former life is never fully explored. This claustrophobia reinforces the fact that the only reality that matters to anyone on board is the situation they find themselves in. Because of the way that the plot closes down to focus on the immediate circumstances the reader is forced to share that isolation. And this claustrophobia is underlined by the sharp and cold intensity of the language, which feels as if it’s stripped back to the essentials. Reading this book is frequently, and presumably deliberately, disorientating and it can sometimes be tricky to figure out what is going on. But it achieves a hard-won emotional punch in its descriptions of Morgan falling in love with his son, and finally understanding the point of life as he faces death. James, overall, offers a difficult but rewarding read.
Bear of Little Brain
The Surfacing, Cormac James
Sandstone Press, £8.99, 382pp