“Hand over hand, Petersen drew the rope out of the water. The gap between the two ice pans was barely a foot wide. Morgan watched the man coiling the rope nicely onto the ice. Inside him, a stupid hope had already bred, that the boy might still be attached to the end of it. He would come up laughing and spluttering, amused as much as relieved.”
THE SURFACING is set in the 1850s, on board a ship searching for an expedition lost while searching for the North West passage to China. Between the northern Canadian islands and Greenland it was a man’s world – until Morgan, second-in-command of the brig, Impetus, had a ‘fling’ with the sister of the Danish Governor of Greenland. They returned to the Governor’s island of Disko to make repairs and stayed long enough for some ‘rest and relaxation’. They set off again for the north but when it was too late to turn back, Morgan realised that there was a pregnant stowaway on board, and that he was the father. The ice was closing in and the child would have to be born into the wilderness of the remote Arctic.
Events involving Kitty and the approaching birth unfold slowly and come to dominate life aboard ship. But the real dominator of their world is the ice! Its cold whiteness, power, movements and sounds, just the other side of the ship’s timbers. Is the ice crushing, broken, weak, strong, slushy? Can they sail? Can they move? Further north-west? Will they be trapped? Will they find the lost sailors? Will they reach Cathay?
With the backdrop of the ice, life aboard has a slow rythm as does the pregnancy. They have to travel the ice more than once and Cormac James gives strong, quiet descriptions of the isolation, the struggles, the trekking, the cold …. and the ice. Relationships form, some strengthen, some bend and some break under the strain.
The book reminded me of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, for the cold historic setting and the pace and feel of the narrative. The details are totally different. This is an absorbing and powerful novel that may well also collect some prizes. Highly recommended. Cormac James has an interesting blog with numerous old photos of people, places and ships of the place and period.