Book: The Surfacing

Cormac James
Sandstone Press, ebook €8.99
Review: Tony Clayton-Lea

IT HAS been a while since Cork-born writer Cormac James had a novel to his name — his debut, Track and Field, was published (by New Island Press) 14 years ago. So it’s safe to assume that life has got in the way, work has been done, and that James — a graduate of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing course — has been biding his time, waiting for the right kind of muse to land on his shoulders.

Of course, the delay could also have been due to the rather mundane lack of sufficient funds, a state of financial affairs that was arighted in 2010 when — on the basis of the opening chapters of The Surfacing — James was awarded a €15,000 Literature Bursary by the Arts Council of Ireland.

It helps, of course, that his by-now quite likely (if unfairly) forgotten debut novel set the tone; set in the time of the Irish Civil War, Track and Field’s narrative focuses on three brothers transporting the coffin of their fourth brother from Dublin to Cork. It’s a man’s world, and no mistake, and this sense of overt masculinity pervades James’s second novel, which, likes its predecessor, has an historical context.

It’s based in the 1850s, and set on board The Impetus, the skipper and crew of which are searching for Sir John Franklin’s well-provisioned but lost expedition to the Northwest Passage, between the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Regarded as the greatest single loss of life of any polar quest, the event remains one of the greatest conundrums of polar exploration (in his biography, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, Andrew Lambert descrbes the tale as a “unique, unquiet compound of mystery, horror and magic.”)

Into this scenario, however, James (whose real name is Cormac McCarthy, which he had to change for obvious reasons) plants a singular bomb timed to explode within nine months: the ship’s second-in-command, Morgan, not only discovers a pregnant stowaway on board but also knows, quickly enough, that he is the father. The Impetus is too far out of port to turn back, a viciously cold winter is on the way, and Arctic wildernesss beckons.

Into the ship-bound narrative James injects a particularly vivid writing style, as much Jack London as Daniel Woodrell: ‘Up at the capstan, they leaned into the bars, and groaned, and cursed, and changed teams, and leaned into the bars again. For four long hours they stuttered forward, inch by inch. By midnight they had driven themselves quarter of a mile deeper, and the vessel stood motionless — dead centre of a vast, featureless plain. But for a few streaks of water, the world around them was now perfectly white.’

A book about exploration — and a failed exploration, at that — appears to be something of a cipher. Underneath all of the gruff talk, dour primitivism, and commentary on the fairer sex (‘Women’, says one character in a display of either disparagement or admiration. ‘Always the first to cry, and the last to give up hope.’), there is a beating heart that drives the story to its logical conclusion.

Touching on themes of fatherhood — as much an exultant experience as it is a terrifying one — and the occasional internal drama of being surrounded by people yet of feeling completely alone, James cleverly fashions a tense, controlled work that is bolstered by weighty research.

That said, the author utilises a literary sleight of hand by admitting on the Acknowledgements page that ‘where known facts have not suited my narrative, I have ignored them.’ Impressive, then, but cheeky nonetheless. Very cheeky.

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