Best New Fiction

Cormac James’ The Surfacing

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The Surfacing
By Cormac James
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press (May, 2015)
Review by Vickie Fang

Cormac James’ hauntingly beautiful novel, The Surfacing, tells the story of the men on one of many English ships in the 1800s that explored the Artic in search of a previous failed expedition. They are making the voyage not because they have any real chance of success, but because “The drawing rooms of London will not tolerate anything less.” No one but their reckless and vainglorious captain has any sort of enthusiasm for the trip; their ship reaches the rendezvous point last, meaning that they will be assigned the worst possible route; winter comes as early and brutally as it always does, and the ice closes in. Then they discover a stowaway onboard – a woman impregnated by the ship’s first mate.

Her presence, and especially the imminent delivery, only add to the first mate’s sense of claustrophobic dread. When at last it came time for his son to be born, he listens and imagines “a blank page being slowly torn in two. The rip has a will of its own, wanders off, like a fault line in a solid wall. Flaws appearing places she would have sworn were sound. But that solid surface – it is the merest skim of plaster over old cracks. Underneath, all the old wounds are still open, and the pain knows exactly where they are. It knows her better than she knows herself. It has been studying her secretly, all her life.”

This, then is the heart of the novel – the wounds that are still open and the pain that knows how to find them. Amid the austere magnificence of a relentless physical environment, the men and woman of the ship endure their fate with much fortitude and little complaint, perhaps because complaint would be trivial in a world like this one. With a near perfect unity of setting, style, emotion, and theme, James traps his characters, and the reader, squarely within that fault line just as the ship itself is trapped within the ice. There are dreams, of course, of a different sort of life, and those dreams serve only to intensify the desperation of their circumstances. “He felt the breach between himself and them, the men of renown. He had read their books. For them, there had been far horizons, all around. He had gone to the windows they had looked through and found them walled up. . . . From where he stood, there was never anything further off than the next step, the next sip of water, the prodigious pain in his legs.”

In pain, longing to escape, and surrounded on all sides by lethal, implacable beauty, they journey on, searching, not so much for the lost explorer as for the answer to their own question. Can I do what is demanded of me? Will I be good enough? I was engrossed by their quest and the intensity of their inner and outer worlds.

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