Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: The Surfacing by Cormac James

I have a fascination for snow and ice. I don't particularly want to live in them full time (or even beyond the first driveway shoveling, if truth be told) but there's something very appealing about them in the abstract. Antarctica is on my bucket list. So are those ice hotels in Finland or Sweden. I am captivated by books about polar expeditions and their fates. The frozen North (or South) land calls to me. So I was fully prepared for Cormac James' newest novel, The Surfacing, a tale about a ship and its crew searching for the lost Franklin expedition to enchant me. I wanted to love this book in all its frozen glory. Unfortunately, it made me feel beaten down, like I always felt after a long, grueling winter when spring should be imminent but is still out of sight, hidden by dirty, monotonous banks of snow.

In 1850, a fleet of ships headed for the Arctic in a bid to find and possibly even rescue the lost Franklin expedition. One of the ships searching, the Impetus, needed repairs after a short trip north and had to return to Greenland for a time. While the ship is in harbor, the first officer, Richard Morgan, thinks little of a dalliance with the governor's sister, Kitty. But when the ship's captain decides to go out searching again despite it being late in the season for safe travels, Kitty is discovered as a stowaway. And as the long months of the search drag on, it is clear that she is pregnant with Morgan's child. As Morgan comes to grips with what this means both in practical terms and for him emotionally, the Impetus is slowly and irrevocably encased in the ice pack, moving ever further north away from freedom and open water, frozen solid into a moving sheet of solid white.

The book is written as a series of ship's log or journal entries but from a third person perspective, which is a little disconcerting, and there is no punctuation setting off dialogue from exposition. It is separated into two different sections: before the birth of the baby and after with a gap of almost a year in between the two. Morgan as a main character is coming to grips with fatherhood at a time when the only other thing occupying the crew is the daily slog of survival in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape. He is hard to know but is better fleshed out than the other characters, who took a very long time to show any signs of individuality. Without distinguishing characteristics, it is hard for the reader to care about them. Much of the book is like this, with well-constructed passages that unfortunately leave the reader nothing but numb.  The interactions between the crew members are reduced to a line here or there, keeping them all distant despite the situation.  The lack of plot makes it a struggle to stay engaged with the story and even as a contemplative reflection on fatherhood, the book doesn't quite deliver. The story of Morgan coming to cherish his son might have been more engaging had the year's gap, which allowed the hard work of building this development organically to be avoided, not been present. The story feels minimal and spare and yet still too long what with the unemotional tone and the completely unresolved ending. Perhaps I expected something different from this than the author intended but despite my initial eagerness, rather than a harrowing tale of life in extremis, I found this to be a mostly tedious and disappointing read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

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