Sandsone Press Logo

On The Blog

The Guardian Reviews "The Surfacing" by Cormac James

The last expedition of Sir John Franklin has been lost for over 160 years, but the search continues. A Canadian team this summer found the hull of one of Franklin’s ships, the Erebus, reported abandoned in 1848. Franklin and his men were looking for the last section of the Northwest Passage, where British governments since the 16th century had hoped to find a quick trade route to the fabled wealth of east Asia. Like hundreds before them, they died in the attempt. Most of the British men who died after them in that area were search crews; well before the end of the 19th century, more explorers had died looking for the Franklin expedition than were on it in the first place. The search, motivated by Franklin’s widow and by a powerful mixture of Victorian sentiment and imperial rhetoric, became a national project. There were folk songs, poems, lantern shows, essays by Charles Dickens and a play by Wilkie Collins. There’s a glancing mention in Jane Eyre. And we’re still interested. Canadians, especially, are drawn to a narrative that brings together a heroic colonial past and an evolving national relationship with the far north. Margaret Atwood writes about Franklin in essays and short stories and Mordecai Richler reflects on the expedition in Solomon Gursky Was Here. More recently, novelists Amy Sackville and Richard Flanagan have touched on the expedition and its loss.

So you’d think there might not be much more to say, and in some ways you’d be right. Cormac James’s novel is not one to read for the plot, in which a group of European sailors looking for Franklin’s expedition get lost in the Arctic with a pregnant stowaway on board. The book begins with the ship, Impetus, taking on provisions and exchanging final communications with the rest of the world at a whaling station in Greenland and progresses painfully north until the Impetus is stuck in pack ice, where it remains. The events of the novel, like the ship, are arrested in a strange and beautiful place where the scene is set for other kinds of change.

James uses the sublime appeal of the Arctic and the extreme situation of his characters as the stage for an essentially domestic psychological novel. The Surfacing is about how people live together and how we rise to the occasion of pregnancy and birth. In a book about men at unremitting and immediate risk of death, the transformative encounter with the condition of being is not mortality but birth. Men who have met each other’s weaknesses with taunting and witnessed death with little apparent concern stand back to applaud an infant’s first steps. The child is conceived without love and the adult characters have little affection for each other, only a deep tolerance, a charity forged by relentless proximity and reciprocal dependence. This is a book for grownups, one that finds its best hope not in romance or friendship or the drama of seeking and finding, because none of those things happen, but in the capacity of human beings to endure. To endure each other, the certainty of death and the suffering that we bring upon ourselves and those around us.

It sounds bleak, and certainly The Surfacing is no comedy, but it is an austere pleasure to read. The expedition, after all, is just a metaphor; the Impetus a ship of fools, the protagonist, Morgan, an Odysseus who’s not going anywhere. Sometimes the language slips so that we don’t know if “she” is the pregnant Kitty or the ship whose belly is full of men. The ship’s doctor explains the closing of Kitty’s cervix for the duration of gestation and Morgan thinks of blocked passages, the end of the travelling season, as the ice closes in around the Impetus. Later, the opening ice cracks “like a firing squad” around men subject to military discipline. The men crave and seek out pain. (Why else would anyone go to the Arctic?) The unused amputation saw is “another promise unfulfilled”. It’s no place for a baby, but there he is, growing, for now and in the face of death: “Every morning a new child stretched out its arms.” The prose matches the landscape, rigorously unadorned, returning the gaze of a reader led into a world without hiding places.

Sarah Moss, October 18, 2014

Cormac James

Cormac James