The Surfacing: an icy tale into unfamiliar territory

Cormac James’s new novel is set on a ship sent to search for survivors of John Franklin’s expedition


The recent blustery weather has provoked a chorus of laments about dark evenings, winter just around the corner, and the need to scrabble in the wardrobe in search of long-forgotten items of clothing such as socks and long-sleeved T-shirts.

What is wrong with these people? Don’t they realise that wind and rain provide the perfect excuse for closing the door, lighting the lamp and curling up with a good book?

Autumn brings a steady stream of new titles drifting on to our shelves. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan have novels out just about now, as do Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Ali Smith, James Ellroy and Amy Bloom.

So much for the big literary hitters. But there’s nothing like the reading buzz you get when a new book by an unfamiliar name grabs you and doesn’t let go. I am beguiled even by the cover of Cormac James’s The Surfacing, which features mounds of shivery white; on the horizon, a dying sun illuminates the masts of a ship, which immediately calls to mind Frank Hurley’s famous photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance frozen into the ice.

This has to be a novel about polar exploration, surely?

It is. The story begins in spring 1850 on board the Impetus, one of a number of British ships sent to search for survivors from Sir John Franklin’s missing Arctic expedition. Arriving late at the rendezvous where the vessels are being dispatched to different parts of the Northwest Passage, the Impetus is sent off to check out “the blank spaces further north”.



To begin with, the world of The Surfacing is ultra-masculine. We meet the captain, his second-in-command, the ship’s doctor, the chaplain, the cook. We are introduced to their daily routines and aspirations, their quirks and eccentricities.

So far, so predictable. Men in boats set off for the ends of the earth in order – one often suspects – to set up alternative, temporary communities; and, of course, to escape the responsibilities of family life.

Cormac James, however, will have none of it. Within a couple of chapters the cherished chappiness of traditional Arctic literature is chucked overboard as a stowaway is discovered on board the ship. Kitty Rink is pregnant. And she’s angry; in fact, she’s furious with the aforementioned second-in-command, Morgan, who is the father of her baby.

It’s an unlikely set-up, in some ways. James appears to be a man who ploughs his own narrative furrow. His debut novel, Track & Field, was a strange, almost unearthly story of three brothers bringing the body of their fourth sibling home to Cork for burial during the Civil War.

Once you accept the initial premise of The Surfacing, however, the cool precision of James’s writing draws you on as surely as if you’re there, trapped in that claustrophobic interior with the vast northern landscape stretching forever outside.

Plenty of bitchy, scrappy dialogue – particularly between Kitty and Morgan – adds a blackly comic note, but James’s overarching storyline is measured, stately, assured. A Corkman by birth, he now lives in France. It has taken him 14 years to produce his second novel. And as the pages turn, you begin to ask yourself: what, after all, is the rush?

It’s a great start to the new reading season. Wind? Rain? Bring it on. And if you’re going out, close the door behind you.

The Surfacing is published by Sandstone Press

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