The Surfacing by Cormac James is a consuming book about life on the edge of life, life on the edge of death. When you stand at that edge, there is not much difference between the two.
In the 1850s, the Impetus sets out into the Arctic. It is part of a rescue party to find the missing Franklin expedition. Delays on shore, including parties and flirtation with the local girls on Greenland, mean the ship is late at the muster and is assigned the most difficult sector to search. Part way into their journey, they discover a stowaway. This woman changes the life of everyone on board, particularly second in charge Lieutenant Morgan. At first she is an intruder in their male world, then she is a nuisance, but finally they accept Miss Rink as one of them. And all the time, winter draws in and the ice clamps around their boat. And Miss Rink is pregnant.
They are caught in the ice for the winter. Ice is a character in the novel; it moves, it seems to breath, it thaws and re-freezes. Their lives depend on the ice. The options are endlessly reviewed, always tempered by the thought that they – the rescuers – are in need of rescuing themselves. And if they were, by some miracle this far north, to stumble on Franklin, would they be able to help the stranded crew?
I felt myself drawn into their daily lives, the need for routine and tasks in the long dark freezing cold days when there is nothing to do. The French cook made me smile, he promises them feasts at mealtimes and serves up mush. And all the time, the story is told by Morgan. His difficulties with Captain Myer, his friend Doctor DeHaven, and with Miss Rink.
Will they survive? Will they discover Franklin, or will they in turn be rescued? This is a wonderful novel, a very different read for me. The Arctic has such a presence, James describes the sea, the ice, the barren mountains and the extreme weather, with language at the same time poetic and powerful. Above all, it is a story of fatherhood as Morgan slowly accepts that Miss Rink’s child is his. In the midst of danger, trapped by the ice which pushes their boat so high above the ice’s surface that it must be supported by wooden posts, a new life is born.
For more on Cormac James’ inspiration for The Surfacing, read this interview with the Irish Times.
Click here for Cormac James’ blog.
The lost expedition of Arctic exploration, led by Captain Sir John Franklin, left England in 1845. The ships became ice bound and all on board were lost. A rescue mission was launched from England in 1848 and searches continued throughout much of the 19th century. To read more about Franklin’s expedition, click here.
‘The Surfacing’ by Cormac James [UK: Sandstone Press] Buy now
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