Book Review of Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North – Marcel Theroux

Book Review of Far North by Marcel Theroux

In Far North, we read of a world in which the inevitable results of consumerism, global warming and the environmental exploitation of poorer nations has come full cycle.  The disaster has long been and gone.

Before the disaster, numbers of the concerned emigrated to Siberia, a blank canvas of a land, where environmentalists, Quakers and free-thinkers could build Ark-like communities where they would be safe from the worst awaiting mankind.

Alas, their isolation was not enough to protect them, for when the world fell apart, other, more mean-spirited groups came into their communities and sowed dissension and brought back the old ways of competitiveness and greed.   An adult “Lord of the Flies” was enacted and only a few survived.

One of the survivors tells the story of what happened next.  Named “Makepeace” by her Quaker father, she suffered terrible abuse from the rougher incomers and now presents herself as a man.  Never a very feminine woman, she finds safety in her new persona.

Her struggle for survival has in any case given her the full range of skills of any mountain survivalist.  Makepeace’s family are long-gone, the victims of terrible times which leached their idealism away from them and left them prey to evil.

Makepeace drip-feeds her story to us, saving some of the more important revelations of her life to the later portions of her book (a set of old exercise books which she manages to hide in her remote cabin).  She was appointed a Constable under the old order, and grimly clings to her law-keeping role for the residual status it still brings her when dealing with the hostile folk around her.  But all law has gone, as has trust in one another.  Makepeace’s ability to maintain a stock of weaponry and to make her own bullets is her only real security.

The world has turned very ugly.  The Soviet Gulag system has re-emerged and slave labourers work in blighted landscapes and ruined cities, recovering polluted artefacts from a better civilisation now long gone.  Is this a solar-powered iPod? –

. . .  a silver stone, about the size of an apple, but flatter and hard and cold. It lay there, dead and unresponsive. ‘Not working,’ she said. She took it out of the room and lay it somewhere . . . she went out of the room and brought the stone back. ‘I just hope there’s enough sun today,’ she said as she set it back down in front of me. It was warm to the touch now from having laid out in the sun, and on the skin of it you could see little shapes in light, like the outline of stars in the dark, but green . . .  I prodded it again and the stone seemed to leap into life. A picture appeared on it, but not flat and painted, lit up on one whole side of it, and moving, and speaking. It was of girls, six or seven of them, and a bit drunk.

Far North – Marcel Theroux

Makepeace has learned that her only safety is in isolation but sometimes you have to trade with others or make common cause against the many threats which surround the few remaining pockets of community.  She has a terrible time of it but with her innate intelligence and survival skills she manages to extricate herself from the worst that happens to her.  Her salvation is in managing her own withdrawal from the world in a way which does not corrupt her spirit.

There have been many other dystopian books in which we read a vision of a hopelessly corrupted future.  This one offers the usual mix of blighted landscapes, renegade gangs living in a lawless civilisation, a few good people struggling to keep the old ways going.  

The genre is shared by all forms of pioneering stories whether in the Wild West, Australia or Africa quite apart from the many post-nuclear holocaust stories. Far North reminded me of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen Baxter’s Flood.  I think it reminded me most of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain which is set in the aftermath of the American Civil War and is equally well-written.

When a book has an enigmatic title its good to find the reference to it in the text – it often tells you the author’s purpose behind the book.  I found the reference to “Far North” towards the end of the book:

But our world had gone so far north that the compass could make no sense of it, could only spin hopelessly in its binnacle. North had melted right off the map. North was every which way. North was nowhere.

Marcel Theroux has written a fine novel here.  It is harrowing at times, but is written so beautifully that we are drawn on despite the horrors.  Marcel Theroux’s father is of course the travel-writer and novelist Paul Theroux and I would say that the son writes as well as the father.  The reviewer in the New York Times called Far North “an unbearably sad yet often sublime novel” and I think that sums it up well enough.