Thomas Franklin is a fifteen year old boy who is convinced he is distantly related to Sir John Franklin who led the ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition through the Arctic and perished in the attempt. This expedition is his consuming obsession. Thomas is trying to adjust to the fact that his mother has left to pursue her interest in environmental concerns in the far north of Canada without much remorse for the child she’s left behind, that his older brother has gone off to college, and that his high school teacher father has moved him to the remote, cold, barren town of Houndstitch while he works on finally completing a poetry cycle about a selkie that he’s been working on for years. Prior to the breakdown of his parents' marriage and the move to Houndstitch, Thomas had conceived of a movie about the fate of Franklin's expedition and he continues to work on his storyboards and screenplay becoming so obsessed with the men, the voyage, and their ultimate fates that he determines to give himself scurvy so he'll better understand their state of mind, the desperation and hopelessness that eventually leads to the crew's cannibalism.
His father John, not the John Franklin of the expedition, is so caught up in whether or not to accept his marriage's end, his renewed interest and insight in his poetry, and the subtle courtship dance he's conducting with a former colleague, who also happens to be the mother of the boy bullying and tormenting his own son, that he is blind to the despair and danger consuming lonely, outcast Thomas. All John knows is his own struggle and unrelenting pre-occupation with trying to put his own feet in front of one another such that he cannot spare much worrying about his son's well-being.
Told from three different narrative perspectives, that of Thomas, John, and of the men slowly starving to death on the Arctic expedition (or at least Thomas' hallucinations of same), all three narratives grow bleaker, more desperate, deteriorating slowly as the story progresses. Thomas and John's characters are isolated from each other both because of the screens of their obsessions, Franklin's expedition and poetry but also because of their inability to connect with each other emotionally, to step outside themselves and see and care about each others' suffering.
The shifts between the three different narratives were abrupt and were not delineated in any way stylistically and so could be confusing as the reader struggled to realize the scene had in fact shifted. The scenes with Thomas and his younger, almost girlfriend, both those that were sexually charged and those that weren't, were dreamlike and uncomfortable and probably fairly accurate renderings of a teenaged boy's thoughts. His father's similarly lust-fueled fantasies are equally descriptive. Thomas and John may be separated by thirty years but their confused and lonely crises are staggeringly similar.
The inclusion of Franklin's harrowing, doomed search for the Northwest Passage, one that has horrified and captured the imagination for so many years highlighted the unspoken despair felt by the modern day Franklin men. And Thomas's musings on ways to film the darkness and the dread without sacrificing the appropriate atmosphere provide some of the most interesting passages in the novel. Spatz is a good writer but like the unfeeling ice that trapped Sir John Franklin, there's a bone deep emotional chill in these pages that make it hard to really connect with the characters. The irony, of course, is that the characters cannot connect with each other either.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.