Both Jim and I reviewed this book, which we read for our bookclub. A plot summary is given first, then Jim’s review, and my impressions follow.
Note: There are no spoilers in this review.
The world has become a very dreary, dangerous place by the time we meet Makepeace Hatfield on horseback patrolling a deserted town in the far north that is home. The town is deserted because of apocalyptic events to the south that have brought civilization to an end. Makepeace was once the constable of the town, but now is the only permanent resident. While on patrol, Makepeace encounters another human being, apparently stealing books from the town library, probably to burn for warmth. When the thief drops the books and reaches for what might be a gun, Makepeace shoots (but only to wound, not to kill), only to discover that the “gun” carried by the thief was a dull knife “that you’d struggle to cut cheese with.” Makepeace nurses the thief, named Ping, back to health, and then the surprises start coming.
We learn that both Makepeace and Ping are not who they seem. Further, we learn just how tough Makepeace is during a trade deal with some Tungus – caribou herders – who live five days ride to the north. After Makepeace’s guns and ammunition get stolen, Makepeace tracks down the thieving herder and sets his tent on fire when he sleeps. He survives the fire, but finds himself in -40 degree weather with no coat. It takes him 2 hours during which he almost freezes to death, but Makepeace gets the guns back.
Makepeace and Ping develop a strong friendship even though they do not speak each other’s language, but after awhile, Makepeace is alone again. The rest of the book covers Makepeace’s efforts to make contact with other humans. The search is not very productive in that Makepeace is soon captured by slavers and wastes years in debilitating servitude. The outlook for slaves is bleak, and the reader cannot be sure of Makepeace’s continuing survival.
Theroux’s writing is terse and clear. However, the plot is very reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and that’s a very tough act to follow. This book is not as concise and not nearly as scary as The Road. In addition, Theroux’s work contains two story line cheats in the form of scientifically unexplained impossible technology, one of which is only tangentially necessary for the plot.
The book contains some implied observations about religion: the Evangelical “preachers” are phony and the Muslims are sincere, but benighted. All in all, this is a pretty grim book with a pretty grim view of human nature. Perhaps most of us are as beastly as Theroux portrays us when we are in circumstances as adverse as he describes. In The Road, the terror comes from the anticipation of the bad things that threaten to happen; in Far North, those bad things actually happen (enslavement, beatings, friends die, etc.), but that just isn’t as scary. Nonetheless, the final message is uplifting — Makepeace is a mensch, in spite of everything.
Jim’s Rating: 3/5
I would rename the main character (and also the narrator) Meh-kepeace. The character was sort of blah and not really well developed. Subjects that might have revealed more about Makepeace were dispensed with by sentences like: “I can’t dwell on what happened next, because it pains me too much to write it…” You’ve got to be kidding! Moreover, that was about as close as the character ever came to expressing any emotions. Far North was far too one-dimensional for me, and the quality of the writing wasn’t sufficient to compensate.
Further, as Jim noted, there were some never-explained references – such as the mysterious blue flasks – that really played no big role in the story other than to serve as red herrings. For that matter, we don’t even know what caused the apocalypse that makes this story post-apocalyptic, or even its extent.
In the end, we get one final surprise that seems yet again to me to demonstrate cheating on the part of the author: cheap tricks to titillate the reader. I can’t see Makepeace not elaborating on this [surprise] earlier.
Unlike Jim, I did not find the book uplifting; on the contrary, the message I got was that even generosity is more likely to inspire resentment than gratitude, and that the majority of people are basically evil. Bah, humbug.
Published by Faber and Faber, 2009