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THE SURFACING by Cormac James

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
THE SURFACING by Cormac James
01 Mar
It is 1850 and Lieutenant Morgan finds himself in chilly, frequently frozen, northern waters. His ship, the Impetus, of which he is second-in-command, is searching for traces of the Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage

Morgan is not in a terribly good mood and thinks back fondly to the previous year when he was enjoying the ‘liquid jade’ of the Aegean. The last thing he needs is an unwelcome complication, but there is a pregnant female stowaway and Morgan is the father of the unborn child.

At first, he worries about fulfilling his responsibilities: ‘taking care of himself already felt an endless chore’. But then the babe is born. It ‘looked like a mass of liver smeared in something like buttermilk’, but it also awakened something in Morgan. There was a chance to be adored and ‘for the first time in a long time, he heard a call to his better self.’ Fear not. There is nothing of the soap opera. It is a nuanced meditation on fatherhood and, along the way, there are some terrific portrayals of life aboard ship in the mid-19th century. Dogs eat minced seal fish, the gales are ‘lunatic’ and the snow is ‘tragic.’ The human beings veer between despair and courage. Letters arrive with news from home of ‘censure’, ‘silence’ and ‘death’ but when the weather improves the crew are ‘sailors again’ with ‘canvas bragging overhead’.

This is a historical novel where the subject matter is almost incidental – though James has clearly done his research. The joy is in the prose, lyrical but not overblown, and the winningly straightforward plot. There’s also every chance that you’ll be tempted to turn up the thermostat while reading. James does a splendid job of portraying the icy landscapes, all the way up to the 76th Parallel.

THE SURFACING by Cormac James, Sandstone Press, £8.99 (pb)

This review was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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