Monday 19 July 2010

Book Review: Far North by Marcel Thereoux

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"Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city. Out on the far northern border of a failed state, Makepeace patrols the ruins of a dying city and tries to keep its unruly inhabitants in check. Into this cold, isolated world comes evidence that life is flourishing elsewhere - a refugee from the vast emptiness of forest, whose existence inspires Makepeace to take to the road to reconnect with human society. What Makepeace finds is a world unravelling, stockaded villages enforcing a rough and uncertain justice, mysterious slave camps labouring to harness the little understood technologies of a vanished civilization. But Makepeace’s journey also leads to unexpected human contact, tenderness, and the dark secrets behind this frozen world."


For all intents and purposes, the world has ended. The thunderous rush of the river of existence, once so teeming with men and birds and beasts - life in all its myriad shapes and sizes - has slowed to be as a mere stream, and died down, in time, to but a trickle. An experimental colony on the Russian tundra, built away from the hustle and bustle of modern, immoral civilisation, has lasted the course longer than most, yet even that oxbow of humanity has dried up. Makepeace Hatfield walks the ice-packed streets of Evangeline alone: the last of her family, the last in her humble village, the last, she fears, of all.

But Makepeace, named in celebration of her parents' "new religious enthusiasm," is not alone - though soon enough she might wish she were - for out on patrol one day, she comes across Ping, an escaped slave, and though tragedy comes shortly thereafter, a spark of hope catches in her heart regardless. And so she leaves all that she has known behind to set out into the great beyond, determined to find the last surviving remnants of a society she'd long thought lost, and her place in it.

How to talk about Far North without referencing that other post-apocalyptic masterpiece? If you've read The Road - and at this point, who hasn't? - you'll struggle not to feel its reverberations throughout Marcel Theroux's fourth novel, but that isn't to say Far North lacks a sense of identity. There have been narratives set at the end of the world before, and there will be many more, no doubt. The Road, though, has such traction these days, such immutable cultural currency, that it stands as a touchstone for many to measure fiction which shares with it a setting against. Far North is not the equal of Cormac McCarthy's bleak tour-de-force in populist terms, then, nor stylistically speaking, but just as we do not expect every instance of film to equal Citizen Kane in either execution or appeal, neither should we thus overlook post-apocalyptic fiction simply because it is not The Road.

In point of fact, Far North has the potential to reach farther even than that oft-touted powerhouse. To begin with, Theroux's latest and surely greatest novel is more accessible than the Oprah favourite by half. His spare prose engenders an equally haunting atmosphere as that which pervades The Road - without relying, as McCarthy does, on literary sleight of hand. And while The Road left its readers feeling hopeless, bereft even, Far North is ultimately a much more uplifting experience. I wouldn't dare spoil the fantastic denouement, nor suggest that everyone escapes it unscathed; suffice it to say that Theroux has crafted an end of the world narrative more about the world that its end, the journey than the destination. In place of the grays and browns is a pristine landscape of colour, feeling and promise, a truly beautiful thing to behold.

It would be lamentably easy to dismiss Theroux's novel out of hand as a repurposing of The Road with its anonymous man and boy and substituted for a woman and a girl - a sort of feminine spin on the post-apocalytic machismo of McCarthy's powerhouse - but there's a great deal more to Far North than such a reductive description allows for. Its scope is greater, its heart easier to hone in on, its setting that much more original and affecting than the standard scenario of a washed-out, once-wonderful world. In Makepeace, Theroux gives us a narrator we can believe in, with a history that has shaped her and a future that makes her. She is a revelatory guide through a timeless landscape that guards rapturous surprise at every turn.

Far North has already garnered a nomination for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award, and though The City and the City beat it to the punch, one suspects it was overlooked largely because so many readers believe the setting that defines its oeuvre has been mined to the point of exhaustion. But there are more ways than one for the world to end, and believe you me, you'll want to see this one.


Far North
by Marcel Theroux
June 2010, Faber & Faber

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  1. You know, you write some damn fine reviews.

  2. You make me blush, Rachel. Thanks so much so saying so, means a lot. :)

  3. Well, frankly, given a choice between The Road and Far North, I'd chuck The Road out the bloody window.

    I also find absolutely no correlation between The Road and Far North in this man/boy, woman/girl comparison. It is a complete misreading of the difference in approach to characterization taken by the two novels. In fact, it makes me think poor Theroux is being sorely misused by you.


  4. You want a baby with that bathwater, Jeff? The comparison I made - and I'm surely not the first to have done so - does not begin and end with the substitution of a man and a boy for a woman and a girl, but honestly, I'm not going to get into a debate with you as to why my opinion is somehow more valid than yours or vice versa. Take exception to my reading all you please, but accusations of misreading and misuse are hardly helpful here, only antagonistic. Come to that, the sheer presumptuousness of suggesting that because our respective readings of Far North differ mine must be mistaken rather boggles the mind...

    What is it you think I'm "using" this review of Far North for, I wonder?