Review of “Far North” by Marcel Theroux

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.

Jim’s Evaluation:

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

Jill’s Evaluation:

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.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Faber and Faber, 2009

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18 Responses to Review of “Far North” by Marcel Theroux

  1. bermudaonion says:

    I love that you’re in a book club together and I love that you reviewed this together, but I think I’ll skip the book. I don’t think it’s for me.

  2. Richard says:

    Meh-kepeace? “A for effort” on a book I prob. wouldn’t like either! Hysterical. 😀

  3. Steph says:

    Ha ha for “Mehkepeace”! I definitely don’t want to read this book, but your review was certainly entertaining. I love that you and your husband are in a book club together! I wish I could find something similar here.

  4. zibilee says:

    From the synopsis you posted, I was really excited, but then I read your thoughts on the book, and have to conclude that this is one that I will skip. I am not crazy about books that just make you go “meh”, and I am sorry to hear that it was not such a great read for the two of you.

  5. Sandy says:

    Like Kathy, I am impressed (and envious) that the two of you have partnered up here. I love my husband dearly, and wouldn’t trade him for anything, but he is not a reader and probably never will be. He prefers newspapers, magazines and will take three years to read a book about the world’s grain markets (!?). God love him.

    I shall pass on this particular book. Thanks for suffering through it so I don’t have to!

  6. Margot says:

    I enjoyed reading the two different viewpoints. I felt the same way Zibilee did after reading the synopsis. Had that been on the back of the book, I would have brought it home with me. Too bad the author let it fail after such a good start.

    I hope you both share more of your book club experiences with us.

  7. jewwishes says:

    This doesn’t sound as if it is for me. Thanks for the two reviews…very differing…yet informative.

  8. Staci says:

    I don’t think anyone can beat “The Road” that book was spectacular!!!

  9. ds says:

    Great tandem review! One less book for the list, however ( I think I’m glad of that). Silly question: is Marcel Theroux in any way related to Paul Theroux? I had trouble with his fiction, too…

  10. Alyce says:

    I probably wouldn’t have ever read this book anyway, but at least now I know for sure it’s not something I’m interested in.

  11. Willa says:

    Thanks for an honest and good review. Will stay away from this one – I like my characters well developed 🙂

  12. I wish I could get my hubby to read with me. 🙂 This book sounds interesting, but I would be put off by the lack of character development and rather demeaning view of religious people. I am not particularly religious myself, but I am often disappointed when it’s portrayed in a one-dimensional way.

  13. Belle says:

    I really like that you’re both reading the same book, in the same bookclub, and writing reviews together!

  14. Lisa says:

    Love the double review! I’m thinking if neither of you was impressed with this one, that’s a good enough reason not to read it. Plus you both gave great reasons not to pick this one up.

  15. I like this review style, but it’s too bad the book wasn’t great for either of you. I know the feeling of a character skipping over potentially interesting details – it’s really frustrating!

  16. Biblibio says:

    I haven’t read “The Road” so I feel as if I’m missing something here. The book sounds interesting – a bit scattered, maybe, but an interesting premise. Of course, apocalyptic books have existed long before “The Road” so I don’t fault “Far North”, it’s just that it also sounds quite confusing.

    • Unfortunately the review had to be very very ambiguous because even using pronouns could have been “spoilers.” Even so, the book wasn’t as confusing as the review! :–) In fact, I didn’t think there was much to it at all. You basically had someone trying to survive in a bleak, freezing cold, lawless environment. Not much character development. There are nonfiction books that do the topic much better! There might not be lawlessness to John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” for example, about the disastrous Everest climb in 1996, but you felt like you knew the climbers and moreover you were on the edge of your seat reading even though you knew the outcome. Or “Assault in Norway,” by Thomas Gallagher about a few men trying to survive in the bleak winter of Norway so they could sabotage the Nazi heavy water facility – one of the most exciting books I ever read – way more scary and way more emphasis/information on surviving in that kind of environment.

      In short, I was quite disappointed with the book, but you’re right, the review can’t and therefore doesn’t say much! (My husband initially wrote a much better review, but I went back through and purged it of spoilers, which took out quite a bit, since the only thing the author could think of to make it interesting was to keep adding little plot surprises.)

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