Marcel Theroux’s Far North is a tale of endurance and survival, though not necessarily in the way one might anticipate.
Our narrator is Makepeace Hatfield, the constable of a frontier town in Siberia, though she’s not really sure how many people there are to protect and/or fend off any more. Makepeace is the daughter of parents who, along with others from the US, settled in Siberia looking for a simpler life, environmental changes having put intolerable pressures on the life they knew. It didn’t work out, and now who knows what’s going on in the wider world? Not Makepeace, who has enough on her plate with day-to-day living. But when, one day, she sees a plane – a sure sign of other humanity – she decides to head out beyond her town to see what she can find. In due course, she is captured and taken to a prison-town, where she discovers that maybe not all of that old world has gone, or perhaps a new one may yet be forged.
Far North is striking both for what it is and is not. It is a clearly told tale (Theroux’s prose is expressive, but not densely poetic; the latter would be out of place in the harsh world of his book) of a woman who has to face up to a life and world of deep contradiction; for example, she doesn’t ‘share [her parents’] view of the merits of scarcity’ (50), yet efforts to rebuild the world bring their own difficulties.
But, even though Far North tells of an individual making her way through the wilderness, it’s not a tale of survival in a documentary sense; the landscapes and how people live are in there, but the details of those aren’t the main focus. Rather, I think Theroux is interested in depicting a more fundamental kind of endurance – the endurance of the human spirit.
Throughout the novel, one is constantly reminded that this is a story: the references to Makepeace writing her words down; the beats of the narrative (the knowledge that Makepeace is a woman comes twenty pages in, in a way that could wrong-foot the unwary reader). And, if we take the view that stories are a way in which humans make sense of the world, then we can say that a story is being enacted even in this harsh setting, which would seem to have no room for stories. Yet the story goes on, and so does humanity.
What I take away most from Far North is a sense of the enormous pressures (and I’m talking about psychic pressures here as much as physical ones) under which Theroux’s characters have been placed, and the price they’ve had to pay within themselves in order to survive. The novel’s title refers to a moral compass as well as a geographical one, and the idea that, if you travel far enough north, all directions start to lose meaning. Both Makepeace and other characters have done (and do) morally reprehensible things; but right and wrong become malleable concepts in the reality of this book, and that’s what Theroux captures so well.
Far North announces itself quietly, and never raises its voice – but its echoes remain after the book is closed. Like humankind in the tale, it endures.
This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.