Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North by Marcel Theroux is a dystopian novel set in Siberia. Narrated by Makepeace Hatfield, the last remaining settler in a city in the Far North that was formerly populated by modern pioneers, it's a relentless and largely bleak tale of loneliness and desperation. And yet, somewhere within it glows a little flicker of hope that shines weakly through the winter darkness.

Many reviewers have likened Far North to Cormac McCarthy's The Road; I haven't read The Road yet so I couldn't make the same comparison. I did, however, see strong echoes of Orwell in Far North, not just in the harsh dystopia of the setting, but in the stark, precise, economic prose. Theroux's writing is sharp and clear and never wastes a word; Makepeace herself is thrifty and hard with an underlying tenderness, and the language of her narrative reflects this perfectly.

The novel is peppered with sudden revelations - some big, some small, but most of them blunt and startling, delivered with Makepeace's characteristic pragmatism. What we never learn from Far North, however, is exactly what has happened to the world. We don't know what caused this sudden de-population of the planet, this mysterious near-holocaust that has left a tiny number of survivors scraping brief and joyless lives from the wilderness of northern Russia. We don't know how some of those survivors came to be enslaved in forced labour camps in Alaska, where Makepeace spends five years; we don't know what the mysterious healing jars of light are that the prisoners find in 'the Zone', the abandoned city contaminated with genetically-engineered anthrax bacteria, and we don't know whether this substance is miraculous or sinister. There are mutterings about radiation, but there are also mutterings about climate change and refugees - it's never clear. Neither is it clear whether Makepeace's suspicion that somewhere normal civilisation is still thriving is correct, although this is more understandable because Makepeace, of course, don't know, and she narrates the story. But she would, surely, have some knowledge of what sent the starving, desperate refugees from Europe and Asia to the pioneer cities of the Far North - she was there when they began to come, after all, and saw them destroy the order of the Quaker frontier established by the likes of her parents. I'm all for ambiguity in novels, and some of the ambiguity in this novel works beautifully, but there were details I felt were unrevealed purely because the author himself couldn't come up with an answer.

Far North opens with hope, and the possibility of new life, but this, as repeatedly occurs throughout the novel, is snatched quickly and brutally away without ceremony. The end, however, re-kindles the flame. I couldn't go so far as to say the ending is uplifting - in truth, none of the book is - but it is satisfying, and there's a lot to be said for that.

One more, trivial, thing to say about the novel: the cover art on my Faber & Faber edition is ghastly. Makepeace Hatfield is a tough, weatherbeaten, disfigured survivalist who easily passes for a man and whose face is marked with acid burns. She spends most of the novel either trekking half-starved through the Siberian wilderness or labouring in a prison camp, wearing stinking clothes, and winter garments either stolen or cobbled together from animal skins. Why, then, does the front cover show the face of a woman in a fur hat who looks like she could star in Dr Zhivago? I look forward to a day when ugly people are on book covers. You know. Looking like the actual book characters, rather than models. Just saying...

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