It's been 14 years since Cormac James's debut novel, Track and Field, and, while it's not unheard of for a writer to work on a second book over an extended period, expectations can diminish if too much time goes by. Such is the excellence, however, of The Surfacing, a highly original and poetic story of isolation and responsibility upon the sea, that it quickly becomes clear that the Cork-born writer has put his time to good use.
Set in the mid-19th century, the novel follows the journey of the Impetus, a ship that has been dispatched to the Arctic in search of two British naval vessels that went missing while navigating an uncharted region of the Northwest Passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Although that expedition is mostly forgotten now, for Victorian England it was a much-discussed mystery and became the source material for a play, The Frozen Deep, co-written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. James, therefore, finds himself in illustrious company and it is no small compliment to say that he proves worthy of the challenge.
The central character is one Lieutenant Morgan, second-in-command. Through diary-like entries we are introduced to the loneliness of a long voyage, the unchanging landscapes that surround the men as they carve their way through dangerous waters and the paranoias, ambitions and intrigues that colour their thoughts.
The strength of ship-based narratives, while rarely employed in contemporary fiction, is their ability to construct a fully populated microcosm of the world, one where the only escape is death. Writers as diverse as Homer, Conrad, Melville and William Golding have led the way and James picks up the baton – or oar – wielding it with great skill.
His confidence in recreating 19th century dialogue, along with his depictions of shipboard life (erudite while never appearing over-researched) is outstanding. And in a genre whose characteristics can too easily veer towards cliché, the writing sparkles with inventiveness.
Tension builds early on with the uncertainty of what has happened to the two earlier ships and one doesn't need to be Captain Cook to understand that a broken rudder in such a place is a cause for concern. It is in the reparation of this rudder on dry land, and the leisure activities of Mr Morgan while there, that the plot builds, but not before we are treated to vivid descriptions of the dangers of the journey when a boy, Giorgio, falls off a 'giant pan of ice', is swallowed up by the water and immediately entombed by the impenetrable freeze. 'They gathered about the coiled rope. So close to the edge of The Pack, the ice was always alive, and already the crack had completely closed over again.' The sailors on the Impetus know the dangers that lie ahead. This is not a case of succeed or fail, after all, but live or die.
The voyage takes a surprising turn for Morgan when a girl with whom he has had an intimate encounter on land is discovered, stowed away upon the ship and pregnant with his child. The discovery is enough to unsettle a man who heretofore has seemed rigidly in control, although his utterances regarding the captain’s wisdom border on the mutinous. The potential ruination of his career seems to be something he has been expecting – ‘Strangely, he seemed to have been waiting for this moment for years’ – but the presence of a rather aggressive woman on board what has previously been an all-male enclave, upsets the equilibrium of the ship and his own sense of independence.
The real strength of the novel, however, lies in the powerful descriptions of nature at its wildest, vivid images of sea and sky, and the carefully constructed dialogue of the men. Scenes break as turmoil calls all hands to deck in a battle for survival, offering an intense experience for the reader. ‘That day they hauled for twelve hours straight, with never more than a few minutes’ pause. Even when the sledge was free, they were wading in water, upstream, feet sucking at the river mud. Step by step he began to forget the snow, the sledge, the other men. He was alone, leaning into the pain.’
The Surfacing is so compelling that the 14-year wait can be forgiven. Though when a writer can produce something this powerful, I hope it's not too demanding to say it would be nice not to have to wait so long next time.