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Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North (2009)

by Marcel Theroux

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4094126,011 (3.8)29
Recently added byBgGirl, chilperic, trigstarom, Ishimura, FLXobsv, Kylie_T, private library, supercoldd, davidgn
  1. 40
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy (klarusu)
    klarusu: Far North is less harrowing than The Road but equally thought provoking
  2. 00
    Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (New Society Publishers) by Richard Heinberg (mendhamt)
  3. 00
    The Ice People by Maggie Gee (imyril)
    imyril: Although very different, each novel envisions a near future in which civilisation has broken down following rapid climate change. The Ice People focuses on the breakdown of traditional relationships; Far North rejects traditional gender roles with its androgynous protagonist. Far North is more rounded apocalyptic fiction; Ice People is perhaps best tagged as gender apocalypse.… (more)
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    booklove2: Cecil Harder and Pamela from Drop City are similar characters to Makepeace.
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English (40)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (42)
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
Pausing for now. I need something not quite so bleak at the moment.
  m2snick | Feb 19, 2014 |
Pausing for now. I need something not quite so bleak at the moment.
  m2snick | Feb 19, 2014 |
Hot Ice
Published: August 13, 2009

In Marcel Theroux’s postcollapse ­novel, “Far North,” global warming has reduced civilization to largely pre­industrial levels of technology and made sparsely populated areas like the Siberian tundra safer than lawless cities. There’s a satisfying sadness and finality to Theroux’s vision, but the story’s true power comes from the hard-won victories of its remarkable narrator, Makepeace. “A person is always better than a book,” Makepeace claims, and the novel’s enduring achievement is to give us a protagonist who lives up to that claim.

Face scarred by violence, Makepeace patrols the streets of deserted Evangeline, a Siberian town founded by Quakers. After mistakenly shooting a Chinese boy named Ping and then nursing him back to health, Makepeace learns that Ping has a secret — and it’s the same secret harbored by Makepeace herself. Ping is a woman, disguised as a man to fool a violent world. In Ping’s case, she’s also trying to disguise her pregnancy.

Theroux is never shy about subverting expectations. Soon after Ping recovers, Makepeace says with typical yet heartbreaking understatement, “I can’t dwell on what happened next, . . . but in June, Ping died and the baby died with her.” Ping’s death serves as a kind of turning point for Makepeace: it will kill her or force her to engage the world.

Then she witnesses a plane crash, and her despair turns to curiosity: Is the plane a sign of returning civilization? During Makepeace’s quest for the answer, members of a strange cult take her prisoner and sell her to slavers. The detail that destroys her is the same one that destroys the reader: “Sometimes, when you’ve suffered a lot, it turns out to be the small thing that breaks you. That chain almost finished me.”

The harrowing account of Makepeace’s journey to the work camp has the full weight and context of 20th-century history behind it. But when she reaches the camp, personal revelations again dominate. Transferred from hard labor to garden work, Makepeace is unable to bear “the ghost of what might have been” and is “mired in the shame of what I’d become.” If shackles can break you when you’ve suffered, then small pleasures, like gardening, can also break you — by making you foolishly believe you have a chance at normal life.

Next to such moments, even desperate scenes in a contaminated city (where workers must search for technological marvels) seem oddly unimportant. In this wider context, Theroux can do little more than echo dozens of predecessors, from J. G. Ballard to Cormac McCarthy.

But echoes have their own integrity and resonance. The true flaws in “Far North” are the coincidences that artificially tie Makepeace’s past to the novel’s present. Without the author’s prodding, would Makepeace really return to the same settlement where she’d already escaped from religious fanatics? Is it believable that the person responsible for Makepeace’s disfigurement runs the work camp? The reader doesn’t need banal explanations, and Makepeace doesn’t need the closure.

Makepeace also doesn’t need the sentimental, far-fetched rebirth motif that closes “Far North.” It’s easy to forgive Theroux, though, for succumbing to the temptation. So much has been taken from Makepeace that she’s earned some form of kindness.

Deep into this unbearably sad yet often sublime novel, Makepeace says: “Everyone expects to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.” There’s nothing left to say after that — yet Makepeace keeps going, and the reader follows her, if not hopefully then in the hope that she will win out and that her life will have meaning to someone, somewhere.

By Tim Martin
The Telegraph
13 Mar 2009

Imagine: far in the future, on a blighted Earth, human civilisation is crumbling. The cities lie empty and mankind has been driven back to the land. But amid the rubble there exists a place called the Zone, ranged over by scavengers and filled with traps, secrets and sudden death. Within it, it’s said, hide the remnants of a technology more powerful than anything fallen humanity can imagine, a technology created by a civilisation so advanced that it could fulfil mankind’s most ardent desires.

You’ve just imagined the plot of Stalker, the influential Russian sci-fi film made by Andrej Tarkovsky in 1979 and based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. Since then, other Zones have arisen. Residents of the exclusion zone around the site of the Chernobyl reactor now refer to themselves as stalkers, and the zone as the Zone. Two influential video games have taken Stalker as an inspiration and a virtual world based on the area around Chernobyl. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to find Marcel Theroux’s new novel drawing so liberally on this tradition: it’s just that the rest of the book is good enough to make you wish he’d avoided such well-trodden ground.

Far North, a sci-fi book in cursory drag ascribable more to publisher than author, begins as a kind of Siberian western. The novel’s protagonist, Makepeace, is the only surviving resident of an American settlement in the Arctic area of Russia known as the Far North.

In the book’s universe, the populations of the West began to push north as climate change took hold, leading to a new breed of American pioneers and kibbutzniks renting land from the Russian government and living the frontier life. By the time the narrative begins, all this has lapsed and everyone is dead or gone. When Makepeace sees a plane come out of the north and crash in the forest, she goes in search of the remnants of civilisation.

Ah yes, she. It’s a shame that the length of a review doesn’t permit the pronominal evasions that hide this from the casual reader. Makepeace is a woman and she has been ill-used by men, a fact that will turn out to be important in the narrative: but Theroux spills the beans with some glee after a chapter or two anyway.

Far North is told in terse, short paragraphs that mirror the hardscrabble, hard-bitten, unlettered nature of the civilisation it represents. The best parts of the book describe Makepeace’s solitary voyage over the land and the dogged pragmatism of her survival: there is a chilling scene in which she, unarmed, tracks a thief through the snow and watches him freeze to death before retrieving her property. “This world is a scaly old snake,” she comments. “She’s a cunning old woman, and I’m getting to be a cunning old woman, and the last human being that draws a breath on this planet will be a cunning old woman, who raises chickens and cabbages, and has no illusions, and has outlived all her children.”

The magic begins to fade in the second half of the book, in which Makepeace, through a series of reversals, finds herself first a prisoner, then a guard in a work camp near the Zone. The conclusion to the narrative – which produces a figure from the distant past to speed things along, a shameless McGuffin in the form of a canister of healing blue light and a final revelation that’s pure Hollywood – feels rushed and out of step with the reflective tone of the rest of the book. Until about 40 pages from the end, Far North feels as though it’ll be the slightly bumpy first book of a promising trilogy: then Theroux begins channelling Stalker, and the book embarks on a headlong sprint to an unsatisfying finish.

It’s a shame. This clearly aspired to be a sister novel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, two bleak and unforgettable pieces of work, each touched with genius, about the horror that waits at the end of the nuclear road. Far North’s greatest successes and most lingering moments stem from the recognition that all three books have in common: that the worst things about living in a real End Time would be the loneliness and the shame. In the saddest moment of Riddley Walker, the protagonist sees “the shynin of them broakin machines” protruding from the earth, and sadly cries: “O what we ben! And what we come to!” It’s an impulse that Makepeace, a character far too large for the book she finds herself in, might recognise. “Everyone expects to be in at the end of something,” she says, and it is the closest she comes to a lament. “What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.”
  meadcl | Oct 6, 2013 |
A sparse, raw tale of survival in a dying world. Makepeace Hatfield, sheriff and last resident of a remote northern settlement, decides to set out in search of civilisation after seeing a plane crash in the woods. Driven by the desire for better circumstances and haunted by fears of savage inadequacy, Hatfield is blunt, brash and determined in the face of overwhelming odds: aggressive tribesmen, religious mania, slave camps, the irradiated Zone and the harsh environment. The physical and emotional odyssey is gripping and often unexpected. Cleverly told from the start, Theroux reveals extra details gradually to uncover the full scope of his tale. Intriguing stuff, well-written, and ultimately leaving it entirely to the reader to decide whether you still have faith in humanity. ( )
  imyril | May 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
Deep into this unbearably sad yet often sublime novel, Makepeace says: “Everyone expects to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.” There’s nothing left to say after that — yet Makepeace keeps going, and the reader follows her, if not hopefully then in the hope that she will win out and that her life will have meaning to someone, somewhere.
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Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.
"The world is a scaly old snake. She is a cunning old woman ... and the last human being that draws a breath on this planet will be a cunning old woman, who raises chickens and cabbages, has no illusions, and has outlived all her children."
It's habits that keep you straight when everything around you is falling apart.
By now I saw that I'd made myself as unwelcome as a juggler at a funeral.
There's plenty of things I'd like to unknow, but you can't fake innocence.
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Out on the far northern border of a failed state, Makepeace--sheriff and perhaps the last citizen--patrols the city ruins, salvaging books but keeping the guns in good repair.

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